Archive for January, 2014
FOURTH SUNDAY AFTER EPIPHANY
PRAYER OF THE DAY: Holy God, you confound the world’s wisdom in giving your kingdom to the lowly and the pure in heart. Give us such a hunger and thirst for justice, and perseverance in striving for peace, that in our words and deeds the world may see the life of your Son, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.
My first encounter with the “Beatitudes,” the sayings in this Sunday’s gospel lesson, took place in my grandmother’s dining room. From as far back as I can remember, they hung on the wall next to the china closet spelled out in gothic lettering under glass in a tarnished silver frame. I cannot recall when I first took the trouble to read them, but for the longest time I had no idea they were in the Bible. The gist of the Beatitudes seemed to be that you should be happy even when you have no earthly reason to be happy because somehow or another (the Beatitudes didn’t say exactly how) things will get better for you. So if your spouse beats you, grin and bear it. If the cupboard is empty, rejoice anyway. If you are persecuted, put up with it and you will be rewarded eventually. This shallow optimism is about the most sense you can make out of these sayings when they stand on their own.
Which is why the Beatitudes should not be left to stand on their own. They follow the joyful proclamation of the nearness of God’s reign manifest in Jesus’ ministry of healing and casting out demons. They are followed by the rest of the Sermon on the Mount which spells out what that reign looks like as it is embodied among Jesus’ disciples. The kingdom of heaven is God’s future for all of creation. Disciples of Jesus are invited to live in that future now.
We Lutherans have always been a little leery of the Sermon on the Mount. After all, we believe in salvation by grace through faith. The Beatitudes seem to say that God’s good gifts are a reward for poverty, meekness, sorrow and persecution. The body of the Sermon is filled with Jesus’ commands that go beyond even the Ten Commandments. We have tended, therefore, to treat the Sermon on the Mount under the rubric of “law” and, more specifically, the “Second Use of the Law.” According to our Lutheran Confessions, the law serves two purposes. First, the law has a “civil” use. It restrains extremes of evil and violent behavior in society. However imperfect our institutions of justice may be, they nevertheless provide a semblance of order so that we can live our lives in relative peace. Such civil justice is, to be sure, a far cry from the justice and righteousness required of God’s people. It is, nevertheless, preferable to chaos and the law of the jungle.
The second use of the law is principally theological. The law serves to reveal to us our sinfulness and our need for God’s grace and forgiveness. Lutherans tend to view the Sermon on the Mount principally as a mirror into which we look and discover our need for grace. While I don’t deny that the Sermon does function in that way, I cannot accept the proposition that this is the only use it has. We ought not to take a look into the Sermon, shout “Yikes! Thank God for Jesus,” settle for middle class respectability and let grace bridge the gap between that and perfection. This is precisely what Dietrich Bonhoeffer calls “cheap grace:” “Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession, absolution without personal confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.” Bonhoeffer, Dietrich, The Cost of Discipleship, (Second edition c. 1951 SCM Press Ltd.) p. 47.
The Sermon on the Mount was meant to be taken seriously, but not as a set of demands placed upon our backs. The Sermon is to be received as a gift, an offer of participation in God’s future now. It is not a list of conditions we must meet, but the tool by which the Holy Spirit forms the mind of Christ in the church. Obviously, we cannot yet live into the Sermon on the Mount perfectly. That is precisely why we “hunger and thirst” for the righteousness we don’t possess while rejoicing in the knowledge that it will one day be given to us. That is why we can afford to be “meek” in a world that rewards assertiveness. That is why we seek peace, show mercy and endure persecution even when it does not appear to pay off. We know that the powers and principalities ruling the world as we know it will finally be overthrown and the kingdom reflected in the Sermon and embodied among Jesus’ disciples will be all in all. We seek God’s transformative grace in communities shaped by the Sermon on the Mount so that when the kingdom of heaven comes, we will recognize it and be the sort of people capable of living in it.
We know very little about the life of the prophet Micah. He was a prophet of the Southern Kingdom of Judah and a contemporary of Isaiah, the Judean prophet who preached in the 8th Century B.C.E. Micah preached against the corruption, oppression and idolatry of the Judean monarchy presided over by descendants of King David. Unlike Isaiah, however, who appears to have been a Jerusalem insider with access to the throne, Micah was an outsider from the obscure town of Moresheth. Micah predicts destruction for both Judah and the Northern Kingdom of Israel as a consequence of their sin. Interspersed throughout the book of oracles bearing his name are declarations of salvation and promises of liberation. Most scholars believe that these writings come from a prophet living sometime later than Micah preaching to a generation that had already experienced the judgment of defeat and destruction Micah foretold.
In Sunday’s lesson Micah employs a much used literary technique of Hebrew prophets. He places the controversy between God and God’s people of Judah on the stage of a mock court proceeding. The prophet summons his people to answer God’s indictment of their sinfulness, calling upon the mountains to act as witnesses to the proceedings. Vss. 1-2. First God, as plaintiff, sets forth his complaint: “O my people, what have I done to you? In what way have I wearied you? Answer me!” vs. 3. God proceeds to recite his acts of salvation for Israel from the Exodus through the wilderness wanderings “that you may know the saving acts of the Lord.” Vss. 4-5. The prophet weaves together a string of God’s saving acts to illustrate God’s faithfulness to Israel. Verse 4, in which God reminds Israel of his faithfulness in the Exodus, echoes the preface to the Ten Commandments: “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage.” Exodus 20:2. Obedience to these commands, not mere superficial acts of worship and piety, are the proper response to God’s faithfulness.
The narrative of Balak, king of Moab and Balaam can be found at Numbers 22-24. It contains the delightful story of Balaam’s talking ass. Immediately thereafter follows the not so delightful story of Shittim. Numbers 25:1-5. The people of Israel began to intermingle with the people of Moab, attending their feasts and marrying their daughters. At the Lord’s bidding, Moses responded by hanging the “chiefs of the people” in the presence of the Lord. He then directed the judges of Israel to “slay his men who have yoked themselves to Ba’al of Peor,” the Moabite deity. You won’t find this little tale in any Sunday School text.
Gilgal was the spot at which Israel crossed the Jordan River into the land of Canaan under the leadership of Joshua. See Joshua 3:14-4:24. Thus, the Lord brought Israel out of slavery in Egypt, through the wilderness and safely into the Promised Land in spite of her frequent rebellion and unbelief. After such steadfast faithfulness on God’s part, what excuse can the people make for their faithless behavior?
Having no defense to God’s charges, the people respond in verses 6-7, asking what they can do to atone for their sins. They ask whether God will be pleased with more burnt offerings and, if not, whether perhaps the sacrifice of their own children would suffice. The implication here is that the people believe sacrifices, offerings and religious observances can buy God’s favor. They are asking the prophet how much it will take to do the trick. But the prophet replies in verse 8 “don’t give me any of that! You know very well what God wants” (my paraphrase). God is not interested in more offerings or religious observances: “He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” Vs. 8. The power of this response is its stark simplicity. God liberated Israel from Egypt not so that she could become another Egypt oppressing her own people, enslaved to idols and filled with violence. She was given commandments-not because God needs or desires them, but because Israel needs them to preserve the freedom bought for her by her gracious God. These commandments call for obedience to God above all else and love of neighbor. Without such obedience and love, sacrifices, worship and prayer are worth nothing.
It is worth noting that the prophet calls us to walk humbly with our God. Few things frighten me more than people who are certain they know what justice requires. People who are certain have no further need of learning. People who do not learn do not grow. People who do not grow regress to the most infantile level of understanding, i.e., Justice = Retribution. They lose their ability to appreciate ambiguity and to see all sides of every conflict. Every battle is a struggle between good and evil neatly divided along religious, racial, cultural or religious lines. It is always “us against them.” Humble people recognize that genuine learning exposes our lack of understanding and reveals to us how very much more we have yet to learn. Paradoxically, the more you know, the more you realize how much you have to learn. Justice, therefore, must never be done in righteous anger but always with a sober knowledge of the limits placed on human understanding and the flawed nature of all human tribunals and enforcement mechanisms.
Archeologists have recovered a number of religious inscriptions instructing worshippers in the ancient world about the preparations to be made and conditions to be fulfilled before entering a shrine or temple. These texts usually set forth a list of cultic requirements for cleansing, proper ritual attire and acceptable offerings. Psalm 15 focuses instead on the characteristics of character and ethical conduct as critical for determining worthiness to approach the Lord in worship. Rogerson, J.W. & McKay, W, Cambridge Bible Commentary on the Psalms, (Cambridge University Press, 1977) p. 65. The requirements for approaching the temple of Israel’s God have nothing to do with placating the desires of a ritualistically finicky deity, but have everything to do with conduct of the worshiper toward his or her neighbor. While this psalm may have been used as a liturgy for entry into the temple or tabernacle during the period of the Davidic monarchy, it is also possible that it was used in preparation for making a pilgrimage to Jerusalem by postexilic Jews.
The requirements for “sojourning” in the tabernacle of the Lord and for dwelling on God’s “holy hill” are simple: truthful speech, faithful friendship, speaking well of one’s neighbor and honoring one’s promises. But to say that this is all very simple is not to say that it is easy. The old RSV translates the latter half of verse 4 as “who swears to his own hurt and does not change.” In short, those who would dwell in community with God’s people must speak the truth even when it is inconvenient and contrary to self-interest. Furthermore, the truth spoken is not subject to change or revocation under the rubric of “explanatory statements.”
Speaking truthfully does not come naturally. It must be learned. Here I think we could learn a thing or two from our Roman Catholic sisters and brothers who practice individual confession. Properly practiced, confession is nothing less than learning to speak truthfully about yourself. A good confessor is able to help you understand and see through the excuses, lies and delusions you use to justify your conduct. More importantly, he or she is able to point you toward new attitudes and new behaviors that cultivate the virtues of honesty, faithfulness and humility. Only so is it possible to begin speaking the truth “from the heart.”
Hebrew Scripture scholar Walter Brueggemann suggests that this is a psalm of “orientation.” Along with the similar Psalm 24, this psalm “reflects only the well-oriented community, one that has not yet addressed a theologically ambiguous or morally disruptive world.” Hence, “it is not inappropriate that access to God be measured in terms of conformity to what is known, trusted, and found reliable.” Brueggemann, Walter, The Message of the Psalms, Augsburg Old Testament Studies, (c. 1984, Augsburg Publishing House) p. 42. As much respect as I have for Professor Brueggamann, I do not share his view of this this psalm. Rather than a naïve faith untested by trials, I believe this psalm reflects a mature prophetic faith. Its message fits neatly into the text from Micah and reinforces the understanding of Israel’s God as one who is interested chiefly in how his people treat one another. Jesus emphasizes this point in his own central teaching: “The first [commandment] is ‘Hear, O Israel; the Lord our God, the Lord is one; and you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ The second is this, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these.” Mark 12:29-31.
This lesson is perhaps the most critical to understanding Paul. Some of his more superficial critics excoriate Paul for ignoring the life and ministry of Jesus to focus only on his crucifixion. Such criticisms ignore the body of Paul’s letter to the Corinthians in which Paul argues that the life and ministry of Jesus, so far from being irrelevant, are still ongoing within the life of the church. So far from constituting past data, Jesus’ earthly ministry is a present fact in communities where disciples of Jesus continue to break bread in his presence and build one another up in love with the gifts the Spirit pours out upon them.
This love of which Paul speaks is no sentimental ideal. It is a tough, gritty sort of love discovered among people with differing viewpoints, various cultural prejudices and conflicting agendas. We have already seen that the Corinthian church was no happy little commune. It was a place of fragile egos, power hungry factions and loose morals. A person who tries to practice a love that “bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things” (I Corinthians 13:7) in such an environment is bound to get his or her heart broken-or crucified. Yet such seemingly “weak” love in the presence of arrogance, pride and coercive force is exactly the life that Jesus lived. Through such “weakness” God demonstrates a love that is so strong that not even death can prevail against it. This “weakness” of God that embraces evil with love is stronger than the divisive forces at work in the Corinthian church seeking to tear it apart.
In this age of polarization in politics and general social discourse, I believe the church is called to reflect an alternative way of living together in community. More than ever, it is critical that we do not become a microcosm of the culture wars raging around us and that our discourse not degenerate to the point of firing the same hackneyed ideological torpedoes dressed in scriptural garb over the familiar fault lines dictated more by political/commercial/social interests than by any recognizable faith commitment. There is a better way to be in community. The church at Corinth, for all of its shortcomings, was such a community. At least the Apostle Paul felt that way about it.
Last week in Matthew 4:12-25 we witnessed the commencement of Jesus’ mission and his proclamation: “the kingdom of heaven has drawn near.” Matthew 4:17. Crowds from all over the region are drawn to Jesus and, seeing them, he ascends “the mountain.” Surrounded by his disciples (four at this point that we know of), he sits down and opens his mouth to teach them. It was customary for rabbis to sit when teaching their disciples and the Semitic idiom, “he opened his mouth” adds a note of solemnity to the beginning of this very public address. Nolland, John, The Gospel of Matthew, The New International Greek Testament Commentary (c. 2005 Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.) p. 193. The location of the “mountain” or whether it actually was anything like a mountain is altogether beside the point. Matthew’s use of the term is a literary device drawing parallels between Jesus’ teaching and the revelation of Torah, though as with all Hebrew Scriptural parallels we should not push this one too far. Matthew does not wish us to understand Jesus as another Moses or the Sermon on the Mount as another set of commandments. Jesus’ teaching here follows upon his proclamation of the nearness of the kingdom. The Sermon on the Mount is the shape that kingdom is to take among his disciples as the new age is actualized in the midst of the old.
Thus, the “beatitudes” cannot be interpreted as disembodied sayings printed on a refrigerator magnet. They must be read in the light of the exciting news of heaven’s dawning kingdom that Jesus has begun to inaugurate. For the sake of this kingdom, it is a joy to suffer hunger, mourning and persecution. The hunger for righteousness is a sweet hunger anticipating satisfaction. Persecution at the hands of an unbelieving world only reinforces the disciple’s confidence that the battle has been joined and that s/he is on the victorious side. There is nothing masochistic about the beatitudes. They do not promote suffering for suffering’s sake. They promote joyful anticipation of God’s reign of plenty for all people and a willingness to sacrifice gladly all for the sake of that gentle reign.
For this reason I do not buy into the notion advanced by some scholars that Matthew has “spiritualized” the more earthy beatitudes set forth in the Gospel of Luke at Luke 6:20-23. As in Luke, Matthew sees in the difficult human circumstances he calls “blessed” marks of faithful discipleship lived out in the joyful expectation of the coming reign of God. It is important to understand here that the “kingdom of heaven” is not some otherworldly paradise. “On the one hand, God’s future will not negate his creation; what he has created and done in history will be brought by him to a significant goal. On the other hand, this will not be the result of human efforts and historical processes, but will be entirely God’s doing. It follows that both the Old Testament and the New Testament are deeply interested in what is taking shape on this earth: God is controlling history, and God will bring his Kingdom about in the events on this earth. Therefore our Gospel [of Matthew] closes with authority given to Jesus “in heaven and on earth.” Matthew 28:18. Schweizer, Eduard, The Good News According to Matthew, (c. 1975 John Knox Press) pp. 90-91.
The beatitudes constituting our lesson for Sunday are a profoundly significant part of the Sermon on the Mount as Professor Stanley Hauerwas points out: “The sermon, therefore, is not a list of requirements, but rather a description of the life of a people gathered by and around Jesus. To be saved is to be so gathered. That is why the Beatitudes are the interpretive key to the whole sermon-precisely because they are not recommendations. No one is asked to go out and try to be poor in spirit or to mourn or to be meek. Rather, Jesus is indicating that given the reality of the kingdom we should not be surprised to find among those who follow him those who are poor in spirit, those who mourn, those who are meek. Moreover, Jesus does not suggest that everyone who follows him will possess all the Beatitudes, but we can be sure that some will be poor, some will mourn and some will be meek.” Hauerwas, Stanely, Matthew, Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible (c. 2006 by Stanley Hauerwas) p. 61. In short, the beatitudes are not virtues to be acquired, but the expected consequence of living as subjects in the kingdom of heaven as will be spelled out in the balance of the Sermon.
In many respects the Sermon on the Mount expresses in teaching form the meaning of “love” that is so beautifully expressed in St. Paul’s hymn at I Corinthians 13. In both the Sermon and Paul’s hymn, the cross stands at the center. This is because the cross is the form the kingdom of heaven invariably takes in a world that is in rebellion against its Creator. But as Paul reminds us, this seemingly weak and impotent expression of love in the cross is stronger than all the world’s violent hatred.
THIRD SUNDAY AFTER EPIPHANY
PRAYER OF THE DAY: Lord God, your lovingkindness always goes before us and follows after us. Summon us into your light, and direct our steps in the ways of goodness that come through the cross of your Son, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.
Today as I write this piece we are observing Martin Luther King Day. I was only about eleven years old when Dr. King died. I was vaguely aware of him as a person frequently mentioned on NBC’s Huntley Brinkley Report, my Dad’s source for the daily news. I knew that he was an African American and that he was not the same Martin Luther for which my church was named. But the news he made seemed to have little impact on my eleven year old world.
I remember distinctly, though, the day Dr. King was assassinated. That event lanced a boil releasing a geyser of racial anxiety, anger and fear in the little church where I was raised. The neighborhood to the north of the church had long been predominantly African American. It never crossed our minds to extend our evangelical mission in that direction, though. After all, we reasoned, they have their own churches and probably wouldn’t be comfortable in ours. Never did it occur to us that an African American person might actually walk through our doors. But in the wake of the civil rights movement with its occupation of white only business establishments, who could say what the future might hold? The mere possibility of an African American family wanting to join was enough to generate angry and contentious arguments at our board of elders meetings. My father once came home from such a meeting and reported how one of the elders had said to the pastor, “Pastor, you let one of those folks into our church and I’m gone.”
Make no mistake about it. I love my church. It was there that I learned the old, old story of Jesus and his love. Through my friendship with a kid in my Sunday school class that back then we classified “retarded,” I learned that all people are unique and have contributions to make to our common life. I didn’t need any school program to teach me that bullying is wrong. I learned generosity from church members who were there for my family in time of need and participated in the same generosity toward other families in our church when their times of need arose. My church was a wonderful place to learn the mind of Christ.
But it had blind spots that became all too evident in the wake of Dr. King’s assassination. It would serve no salutary purpose to repeat the hateful and ugly remarks made against Martin Luther King, his supporters and African Americans in general during that sorry time. Suffice to say, race was an area in our hearts where the Spirit of Christ was not reigning. Friendships going back years turned sour over this issue of welcoming African Americans into our church, an issue that for many years would remain purely hypothetical! Remarkably, though, we did not lose any members that I can recall. Decades later I learned that the elder who threatened to leave our church should a black person ever cross the threshold stood beaming with pride at the front of the church during the baptism of his granddaughter-African American on her father’s side.
What brings about a change like that? I doubt that it was any sermon or Bible Study. You might as well try emptying the Pacific Ocean with a bucket as try to argue a bigot out of his bigotry. At the end of the day, one’s mind doesn’t change until the heart changes. I expect that it took a lot of years worshiping with African American families and adjusting to his daughter’s marriage to an African American man before this elder could recognize in their faces his own humanity and the humanity of Jesus. When you must deal with people as members of the same body instead of labeling them “Black,” “Hispanic,” “Asian,” “Indian,” “Arab” and yes, “gay” or “straight,” you cannot help but discover in them the image of Christ. But that takes time. Lots of time.
Paul understood this reality well. He speaks in our lesson for Sunday to a church bitterly divided over a number of cultural, religious and ethical issues. I doubt he imagined that his letter would heal the Corinthian church overnight. But he firmly believed that the Spirit was at work in that church, dysfunctional as it was. Paul was certain that the “weakness of the cross,” that is, the power of forgiveness, reconciliation and love holding the church together was greater than the prejudices, blind spots and animosity tearing it apart. He was prepared to let the Spirit take whatever time might be required to complete the work of sanctification.
Dr. King wrote a book published in 1963 entitled, Why We Can’t Wait. The book described the struggle against racial segregation in the United States and, as the name suggests, pointed out why African Americans could not afford to wait any longer for equal treatment under the law. Dr. King was right. Oppressed minorities should not have to wait for bigots to grant them the same rights and freedoms guaranteed to all Americans. No one should have to wait for the day when he or she can live freely and openly as a valued person without fear of discrimination, bullying or abuse.
Yet in one sense, we in the church must wait. For us, the struggle does not end with legislation and court victories. It ends only with repentance, forgiveness and reconciliation. That is a work of the Holy Spirit that cannot be accomplished by political action. Unlike our courts of law, God continues to be interested in what happens to the parties after their dispute has been adjudicated. Justice will not truly be done until reconciliation between the disputing parties is complete. According to St. Paul, the church is the place where the miracle of reconciliation takes place and antagonists are united as one Body in Christ. The story of my childhood congregation illustrates the reality of that miracle in the church today. Nevertheless, the fact that Sunday morning is still a very segregated hour in our land and that our churches continue to be relatively homogeneous for the most part indicates that a lot of that good work remains to be done.
This reading comes to us from the prophet Isaiah who lived and prophesied to Judah and Jerusalem at the end of the 8th Century B.C.E. During this period the Northern Kingdom of Israel was annexed by the powerful Assyrian Empire bringing Assyrian tyranny to Judah’s very doorstep. The Kingdom of Judah, ruled by descendants of David, lived uneasily in the shadow of this super power as a tributary. Crushing tribute and political oppression tempted Judah on a number of occasions to rebel against Assyria in league with other local tributaries. The prophet warned Judah’s rulers against such reckless policies and counseled them instead to wait for Israel’s God to lift the yolk of oppression.
Today’s text will no doubt sound familiar as we routinely encounter it in Advent. If you were to read down to verse 6 you would hear the line so dear to us and to George Frederick Handel: “For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given…” This Sunday, however, the emphasis is on the opening prose in verse 1. To understand it properly, we need to go back to Isaiah 7-8. Isaiah has failed in his efforts to dissuade Judah’s King Ahaz from allying himself to Assyria in order to gain protection from local enemies. Ahaz will not be still and place his faith in the Lord. He is bound and determined to place his trust in Assyria-which will lead to hardships much worse. In despair, Isaiah calls his disciples to witness his written testimonial to God’s coming judgment upon the nation. As for the decision of King Ahaz, the prophet declares: “Surely for this word which they speak there is no dawn.” Isaiah 8:20. “They will pass through the land greatly distressed and hungry; and when they are hungry, they will be enraged and will curse their king and their God, and turn their faces upward; and they will look to the earth, but behold, distress and darkness, the gloom of anguish; and they will be thrust into thick darkness.” Isaiah 8:21-22.
Now our lesson for Sunday begins with a very different word, a message of hope so far at variance with the preceding verses that many scholars consider this to be an utterance much later in the career of the prophet or perhaps the word of another prophet altogether. Mauchline, John, Isaiah 1-39, Torch Bible Commentaries (c. SCM Press Ltd. 1962) p. 111. However that might be, the canonical arrangement of the oracles conveys a message entirely consistent with Isaiah’s call for Ahaz to place his trust solely in God’s promises. The people who have lived in the darkness of judgment will indeed see light again. The yolk of their oppression will be broken, the burdens removed from their shoulders and prosperity returned to their land. But this will not be the fruit of military maneuvers or foreign alliances. “The zeal of the Lord of Hosts will do this.” Isaiah 9:7.
Zebulun and Naphtali were two of the ten tribes of the Northern Kingdom of Israel located in Galilee. The “way of the sea” refers to the highway from Damascus to the sea. It was likely the route for the Assyrian invasion of the Northern Kingdom in 733 B.C.E. The peoples of this territory who first experienced the brunt of Assyrian aggression will also be first to witness the liberation of all Israel from Assyria. The prophet foresees the day when the people of the divided Kingdoms of Israel and Judah along with their territories will be reunited under a messianic king. The yolk of Assyria will be thrown off. “The day of Midian” refers to the victory of Gideon over the Midianites recounted in Judges 6-7. The tribes of Zebulun and Naphtali were significantly involved in this battle. Judges 6:35.
In order to understand this reading, it is important that we be aware of the prior words of judgment against Judah. Yet it is more important still to recognize that judgment is not the last word. In spite of Ahaz’ faithless refusal to trust in God’s promises and his resort to a shortsighted and disastrous policy for his people, God will nevertheless bring to fruition the peace and prosperity promised to Israel. God’s people cannot seem to make a bigger mess of things than God is capable of cleaning up. That’s gospel.
The scholarly consensus seems to be that this psalm actually consists of two psalms, the first being a prayer of trust not unlike Psalm 23 including verses 1-6. The second is a lament consisting of verses 7-14. However that might be, I still believe the psalm fits together nicely as a unit. It is precisely because the psalmist has such great confidence in God’s willingness and power to give protection that the psalmist feels free to cry out for that very protection in times of danger. Though as previously noted the commentators characterize verses 7-14 as a lament, it concludes with an affirmation of confidence in God’s anticipated salvation and an admonition to “be strong, and let your heart take courage; yea, wait for the Lord.” Vs. 14. As usual, I am at a loss to understand the surgery performed on the psalm by the lectionary. Accordingly, I will deal with Psalm 27 in its entirety.
This psalm is focused on dangers posed by enemies. By enemies the psalmist does not mean people who are merely disagreeable or less than friendly. These are people who “breathe out violence.” Vs. 4. I suspect that most of you out there, like me, probably don’t have enemies like that. So what place does a psalm like this have in our lectionary? I suggest that one reason for praying these psalms is so that we can hear and join in the prayers of the whole Body of Christ which, of course, extends beyond our own congregation. The Coptic Christians in Egypt whose churches have been burned and looted know well enough what it is like to have enemies. So do the Christians of Iraq, two thirds of whom have fled their homeland fearing terrorist violence. The churches in Syria have been targeted for violence by both sides of the bloody civil war there. For millions of Christians around the world, the danger posed by enemies is real and often life threatening.
In a recent article published in the Christian Century Martin Tel, director of music at Princeton Theological Seminary, makes a strong case for congregational singing of the entire Psalter-the good, the bad and the ugly: “All the things of which the Psalter speaks, which individuals can never fully comprehend and call their own, live only in the whole Christ. That is why the prayer of the Psalms belongs in the community in a special way. Even if a verse or a psalm is not my own prayer, it is nevertheless the prayer of another member of the community; and it is quite certainly the prayer of the truly human Jesus Christ and his body on earth.” Life Together, by Dietrich Bonhoeffer cited in “Necessary Songs, The Christian Century, January 8, 2014 at p. 23. Our prayers are too often limited by the scope of our own experiences and frequently directed toward our own personal concerns and the concerns of those around us. The Psalter forces us to enter into the experiences and join the prayers of believers throughout the Body of Christ.
The last verse of the psalm is very telling. The psalmist encourages his hearers to “wait for the Lord.” The odd thing about the psalms is that, although they are prayers addressed to God, they often contain admonitions from God in the psalmists’ mouths. Sometimes the psalmists seem to be conscious of an audience listening in on their prayers. God hardly needs to be reminded to “wait on the Lord.” It is important to understand that biblical prayer is a dialogical process. The psalmists’ outpouring of prayer to God is only one side. God responds to the psalmists. Sometimes these responses are oracles delivered by a prophet or priest that have become imbedded in the psalm. See, e.g., Psalm 60:6-12. Often these prayers are sung as praises by the psalmist in corporate worship where they give encouragement to the assembly. See Psalm 27:6. For Israel, prayer was never an entirely personal matter. The confidence of this psalmist is drawn as much from God’s faithfulness to Israel throughout history as from his or her own experience. So also, the psalmists’ personal struggles become a public arena for God to demonstrate his compassion and salvation to Israel.
We began last week a journey into Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians that will take us through Epiphany. Sunday’s reading reveals that this is a church divided by several warring factions fiercely loyal to their chosen church leaders. Some are fans of Peter. Others favor Apollos and some are partisans of Paul. Some scholars maintain that these divisions reflect strife among the apostles of the early church. That might be so, but I think it more likely that these factions were citing their favorite Apostles much the same way partisans fire proof texts at each other from the Bible to further their own agendas. The teachings of the various Apostles are used as ammunition in the same way biblical texts are so often wretched out of context and made to support some unrelated ideology. In any event, Paul refuses to arbitrate these disputes. He offers not a straw even to his own supporters in the congregation. Instead, he points all of them to Christ Jesus. At the end of the day, we are not disciples of Paul or Peter or Luther or any other human figure. We are all fellow disciples of Jesus. One Body animated by the same Spirit-whether we like it or not.
“Cephas,” as we learned in last Sunday’s gospel lesson, is the Greek translation of “Peter.” Apollos was a Jewish disciple from Alexandria. His understanding of the good news about Jesus was evidently deficient in some respect. The Book of Acts tells us only that he “knew only the baptism of John.” Acts 18:25. In Ephesus he met Paul’s associates, Priscilla and Aquila who took him under their wing and instructed him further. Acts 18:24-28.
We will need to wait until next week to find out more about the “folly” and “weakness” of the cross Paul mentions at the end of the reading. Stay tuned!
As we have seen, Matthew is keen to interpret the life and ministry of Jesus through the lens of the Hebrew Scriptures. Here he quotes our reading from Isaiah in which the prophet foretells the dawn of salvation under the messianic king beginning in Galilee. Not surprisingly, this is where Jesus’ ministry begins with the calling of his first disciples followed by a tour of preaching, healing and casting out demons. The long awaited day has dawned at last! No doubt Matthew’s Jewish audience was well aware that the verses cited by Matthew are a lead in for Isaiah’s announcement of the messianic king. Isaiah 9:6-7.
Jesus’ message is, on the surface, exactly the same as John’s: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” Vs. 17 cf. Matthew 3:2. Yet unlike John whose baptism was anticipatory, Jesus’ ministry is accompanied by the healing power of God. What John foretold has now arrived. We can see in Jesus’ healing work echoes of Isaiah 35:5-6. Matthew means for us to understand that the advent of Jesus marks the beginning of a new era just as John marks the end of the old. He will elaborate further on this in Matthew 11:1-19.
The call of the disciples is related in a manner so brief that one could almost read over it. That would be a mistake. It is of profound significance that Jesus begins his ministry with the call of his first followers. Already the church is on the scene in embryotic form and its existence is presumed throughout the gospel narrative. It is important to keep that fact in mind, particularly as we enter into the teachings in the Sermon on the Mount. They make no sense whatsoever unless we understand from the get go that they are intended to govern the living community of disciples who follow Jesus. They are not general ethical principles applicable to any individual or community. The Sermon is to be the shape of this newly birthed community which, in turn, is the shape of the kingdom of heaven drawing nigh.
The brevity of this account has always intrigued me. There is no indication that Jesus has ever met these four disciples before. Yet when he calls, they follow him without hesitation leaving all behind. I have heard more than a few preachers suggest that the four fishermen must have known Jesus beforehand, heard his preaching and been impressed with his message. That is why they jumped at the chance to follow him. But that isn’t how Matthew tells the story and I am always suspicious of attempts to read more into the text in order to make it easier to understand and digest. As Matthew tells it, there is something so interesting, so compelling and winsome about Jesus that you just can’t refuse his call. What was it? Or more to the point, what is it about Jesus that draws people and how does his church reflect it?
As much as I love every church I have ever belonged to, I am not sure we reflect that bold, exciting, interesting and controversial person that is Jesus. To children, we too often portray Jesus as a schoolmarm on steroids preaching morals and good behavior. To adults we portray him as, at worst, a stern moral judge. At best, we portray him as a sorrowful, soft eyed parent who, though forgiving, is nevertheless perpetually disappointed in our shortcomings. The church comes across as yet another civic organization making demands on our overloaded schedules and over extended finances. Is it any wonder nobody is interested?
Yes, I know. There is more to these churches than meets the eye. They are faith communities in which the Spirit is at work doing marvelous things. But for some reason, we are not getting that message across. We succumb to the consumer culture marketing church membership-a product nobody is looking for anymore. There is nothing you can get at church that somebody else can’t provide-except Jesus. So it looks as though we are going to have to speak less of our programs and activities and more about Jesus. That’s the only way people are going to be drawn into the net of God’s kingdom and caught up in the joy and excitement of discipleship.
SECOND SUNDAY AFTER EPIPHANY
PRAYER OF THE DAY: Holy God, our strength and our redeemer, by your Spirit hold us forever, that through your grace we may worship you and faithfully serve you, follow you and joyfully find you, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.
The Fourth Gospel gives us a very different picture of John the Baptist than what we see in Matthew and Luke. The Gospel of John does not give us any of John’s preaching. Initially, we hear only John’s responses to the questions put to him by investigative agents from the Temple establishment in Jerusalem. From his answers we learn a lot more about who John is not than about who he is. John is not the Messiah. He is not Elijah. He is not any other great prophet foretold in scripture or tradition. “I’m just a voice,” he says. John 1:23.
But when it comes to Jesus, John waxes eloquent. “Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” John 1:29. For the better part of a century, scholars have been carrying on a lively discussion about what the term “Lamb of God” might mean. I will come to that under my reflections on the gospel lesson. What interests me, though, is the second part of John’s declaration, namely, that this Lamb of God will take away the sin of the world. How is he going to do that?
The Baptist of Matthew and Luke is clear about what it will take to purify the people: The Messiah will have his winnowing fork in hand to “clear his threshing floor and gather his wheat into the granary, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” Matthew 3:12. See also Luke 3:17. That is all well and good-except that separating the wheat from the chaff is often a dicey business as Jesus points out in his parable of the wheat and the weeds. Matthew 13:24-30. Sin is like a tumor on the brain stem. It is hard to kill it without killing the patient as well. Nothing illustrates that point better than the narrative of Noah’s Flood found in Genesis. God sends a flood to destroy humankind because “every imagination of the thoughts of [the human heart were] only evil continually.” Genesis 6:5. This “flood” was more than a bad rain storm. God broke open the seals preventing the waters under the earth from welling up to swallow the land and broke open the windows of heaven allowing the waters above the earth to come cascading down. Genesis 7:11. The entire infrastructure of creation as described in Genesis 1 was beginning to unravel. But then, in the midst of all this carnage, “God remembered Noah and all the beasts and all the cattle that were with him in the ark.” Genesis 8:1. In the nick of time, God promptly pushes back the destructive waters, closes the windows of heaven and seals up the fountains of the deep. Genesis 8:1-2. In the end, God vows never again to bring such a cataclysmic judgment upon the world. “I will never again curse the ground because of [human beings], for the imagination of [their] heart is evil from [their] youth…” Genesis 8:21. Yet wasn’t it the evil imagination of the human heart that brought on the flood to begin with? As far as human beings are concerned, the flood hasn’t changed anything. Their hearts are just as prone to evil as ever. Dare we say that God’s judgment failed? One thing is clear: God has unilaterally taken the nuclear option off the table. God will not be a bully. God will not resort to violence to rid the world of evil. God knows that seeking to destroy evil by violent means results only in our destruction of the very things we seek to save. Violence turns us into the mirror image of what we most hate. God will not let wrath transform him into our image. Rather, God will employ steadfast love in order to transform us into his own image.
So how will the Lamb of God take away the sin of the world? The answer is almost too simple to believe. John sends his disciples to Jesus and they stay with him. John 1:39. Do not under estimate the importance of “staying” with Jesus. We meet that simple concept again and again throughout the gospel. It is best articulated in the fifteenth chapter of St. John:
“I am the true vine, and my Father is the vine-grower. He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit. You have already been cleansed by the word that I have spoken to you. Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing. Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers; such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned. If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples. As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love.” John 15:1-9.
To put this as simply as possible, “Sin is taken away when you hang with Jesus.” You are shaped by the company you keep. That takes time. The self-centeredness into which we were born must be broken by faithful habits of worship, prayer, fasting, repentance and forgiveness. Fruit does not appear overnight. It takes years of cultivation, a life time of careful pruning, nurture with preaching of the Word and breaking together the bread of heaven. Sanctification happens almost imperceptibly through lots of long, slow, persistent growth. It requires patience. Perhaps that is why the lectionary folks saw fit to give us one last blast of Advent in the reading from I Corinthians where Paul reminds us that we must “wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ.” I Corinthians 1:7.
Once again the reading in Isaiah is taken from the second section of the book (Isaiah 40-55) authored in the main by an anonymous prophet speaking a message of salvation to the Jewish exiles living in Babylon during the 6th Century B.C.E. For more specifics, See Summary Article by Fred Gaiser, Professor of Old Testament, Luther Seminary, St. Paul, MN. This is the second of four “servant songs” in which the prophet sings both of his own calling and struggles and, more widely, of Israel’s calling to be God’s light to the nations. For a more thorough discussion of the “servant songs,” see my post of January 12th. As I noted last week, it is not always easy to discern where the prophet is speaking of himself and where he is speaking of Israel as a whole. For example, the Lord declares, “It is too light a thing that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob…I will give you as a light to the nations.” Vs. 6. It seems likely that the prophet himself is the person addressed since he ministers to Israel. Most commentators seem to follow this view. I believe it is also possible, however, that the word is addressed to the Babylonian exiles whose return and restoration of Jerusalem will rally the “preserved of Israel” and so constitute a light to the nations. Again, these different interpretations are really a matter of emphasis. The prophet’s mission is inextricably bound up with that of Israel to the nations.
The first verse lets us know that the song as a whole is addressed to the nations: “Listen to me, O coastlands, and harken, you peoples from afar.” Vs.. 1. There are three stages of development according to Hebrew scriptural scholar Claus Westermann: 1) the election, call and equipment of the servant; 2) the servant’s despondency as a result of his perceived failure; 3) the servant’s new (or perhaps better understood) task. Westermann, Claus, Isaiah 40-66 (c. SCM Press Ltd 1969) p. 207. To the nations the prophet declares that he has been called to serve Israel’s God and Israel whose mission is to “glorify” God. Vs 3. Once again, the line between the identity and mission of the servant and that of Israel is necessarily blurry. The prophet/Israel is despondent because his life’s work/Israel’s history seems to have been in vain. Vs. 4. So far from glorifying God, Israel has become a despised refugee minority from a fallen nation.
In verse 5 the mood changes with the words “and now.” Though called to “bring Jacob back” to the Lord, such a calling is “to light a thing” for the servant. God declares that the servant will henceforth be given “as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.” Vs. 6. Verse 7 does not appear to be part of the song set forth in verses 1-6. But it follows naturally from the servant song nonetheless. Though now deeply despised, ruled by foreign powers and oppressed, the day will come when “Kings shall see and arise; princes, and they shall prostrate themselves; because of the Lord, who is faithful, the Holy One of Israel, who has chosen you.” Vs. 7. Though perhaps uttered at an earlier time in more vindictive tones, within the present cannon this verse serves to emphasize how the servant’s and Israel’s faithful suffering obedience will finally bring the nations to their knees in adoration of Israel’s just and merciful God.
This and the other servant songs at Isaiah 42:1–9 Isaiah 50:4-11 and Isaiah 52:13-53:12 have been central to New Testament thinking about Jesus and his mission. It bears repeating that the biblical witness to peace and non-violence did not begin with Jesus. Note well how the prophet speaks of his/her call. God has made the prophet “a sharp sword” and a “polished arrow.” Vs. 2. Throughout the Hebrew scriptures God’s weapon is God’s word, God’s voice, God’s speech. It is finally through persuasion that God reigns over humanity. Persuasion takes time, patience and a willingness to experience your efforts as “nothing and vanity.” Vs. 4. The way of the prophet foregoes coercion and the use of force. Such faithful suffering witness to God’s reign is, to use St. Paul’s words, foolishness. More precisely, it is the “foolishness of God.” I Corinthians 1:25. Yet this “foolishness of God” is wiser than human wisdom that seeks results, demands progress and resorts to any means to achieve what it views as the right end.
The lectionary folks might arguably have gotten it right in halving this psalm had they ended with verse 10 instead of verse 11. Verses 13-17 of the psalm are found nearly verbatim in Psalm 70. Thus, it appears as though Psalm 40 is a composite of at least two originally separate psalms. Verses 11-12 serve as a bridge linking together verses 1-10 and verses 13-17 into a single coherent prayer. For reasons I despair of ever understanding, the lectionary planners walked halfway across the bridge and stopped short. On the whole, I would have recommended including the entire psalm. It is important to understand that the psalmist uttering the words of praise in our reading is actually encompassed in “evils without number;” that his/her “iniquities have overtaken” him/her; that his/her heart fails him/her. The high praises for God’s past faithfulness and deliverance are thus a preface to the psalmist’s plea for deliverance.
Immature faith naively assumes that trust in God shields the believer from all harm. Growing faith laments, having discovered that covenant life with God sometimes plunges one into the depths of despair. Mature faith recognizes that evidence of God’s faithful intervention and salvation in one’s life stand side by side with indications of God’s absence. Neither praise nor lament can be permitted to exist exclusive of its seeming opposite. At all times both are called for. As Alfred North Whitehead has said, “the fairies dance and Christ is nailed to the cross.” Whitehead, Alfred North, Process and Reality-an Essay in Cosmology, (c. 1978 The Free Press) p. 338. This psalm binds both praise and lament together in a mature expression of faith in time of crisis. Though faced with numerous threats and challenges and seeing no obvious way out, the psalmist boldly cries out to God having recited God’s faithfulness to him/her throughout his/her life. I therefore recommend reading Psalm 40 in its entirety.
The reading is from the opening lines of Paul’s first letter to the church in Corinth. It constitutes a classic form of salutation used in opening letters customary to ancient Greek style, beginning with the name of the sender. 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, the recipient would not know the identity of the sender until s/he had read the entire letter. The intended recipient is also placed in the salutation to ensure that the reader knows from the start the audience being addressed.
Though clearly the work of St. Paul, the letter is also from Sosthenes “our brother.” He is not mentioned at any other point by Paul. Some scholars suggest that he might be identified with the Sosthenes who, according to Acts 18:17, was chief of the synagogue at Corinth when Paul was arrested there. While possible, there is no textual evidence for this assertion beyond the name which appears to have been a common one. As in his other letters, Paul introduces himself as an Apostle called by God. The body of the letter will demonstrate that some in the Corinthian church had been comparing Paul’s apostleship and teaching authority unfavorably to other church leaders. Paul is laying the groundwork for the defense of his apostleship to be set forth more particularly in I Corinthians 15:3-11.
As usual, Paul begins his letter with an expression of thanksgiving for the church to which he writes. He also expresses confidence that the testimony of Christ has been so confirmed within the Corinthian congregation that it lacks no spiritual gift necessary to sustain it until “the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ.” Vs. 7. Paul’s confidence is based in God’s faithfulness as indeed it must. For as we discover upon further reading, the faithfulness of the Corinthian church was more than a little shaky.
It is worth noting that Paul routinely gives thanks for his churches-even a church as compromised as the Corinthian church with all of its personality conflicts, doctrinal disputes and moral lapses. In my view, clergy often do entirely too much complaining about their churches and the church at large. True, the church is far from perfect. Yet it is worth remembering that Paul could say even of this dysfunctional congregation, “Now you are the Body of Christ.” I Corinthians 12:27. Note that he does not say, “You should be the Body of Christ;” or “If only you could get your act together you might someday be the Body of Christ.” He says of this church “you are.” That is already enough reason to give thanks.
In this reading John the Baptist, who in previous verses has been reticent about his own identity and mission, now becomes quite vocal and explicit in testifying to Jesus. As New Testament scholar Raymond Brown points out, John unfolds through the speech of the Baptist a whole Christology. He identifies Jesus as the Lamb of God, the pre-existent one and the vehicle of the Holy Spirit. Brown, Raymond, The Gospel of John I-X11, The Anchor Bible, Vol. 29 (c. Doubleday, 1966) p. 58. The reading opens with what Brown identifies as an “encounter formula” frequently employed in the Book of Revelation substantially related to the Johannine literature. A messenger of God sees a person and says “Look” or “behold” followed by a description in which the seer reveals the mystery of the person’s mission. Ibid. A similar instance of this formula is found later in vss. 35-37. The construction has roots in the Old Testament as well. (See, e.g., I Samuel 9:17).
There has been much discussion over what is meant by the term “Lamb of God.” Many scholars argue that the meaning is grounded in a Jewish understanding of the lamb as a heroic figure who will destroy evil in the world. This meaning fits well with the synoptic depiction of John the Baptist as an apocalyptic preacher of judgment and with the imagery employed by John of Patmos in Revelation. It does not fit quite so well, however, with John’s depiction of the Baptist chiefly as a witness to Jesus. Other New Testament scholars believe that John’s testimony was shaped by an understanding of Jesus as the suffering servant depicted in the “servant songs” discussed above. Especially pertinent is the fourth servant song (Isaiah 52:13-53:12) in which the prophet states that “[The servant] opened not his mouth, like a sheep that is led to the slaughter and like a lamb before its shearers.” Isaiah 53:7. This argument assumes that John (the author of the Gospel) made the connection between these prophetic oracles and the story of Jesus. Although specific textual evidence is sparse for such an assertion, many of John’s allusions to the Hebrew Scriptures are intentionally more suggestive than explicit.
Some scholars favor identifying the Lamb of God with the Passover lamb. As Brown points out, the Western Fathers favored this interpretation. Ibid, p. 61. In favor of this interpretation, the Passover lamb is a central symbol in Israelite worship, whereas in the servant songs the lamb is but one isolated image. Passover symbolism is common throughout the Gospel of John. The slaying of the paschal lamb and its protective blood upon the doorposts of the Israelites fits well into the parallel between Jesus’ mission and the Exodus narrative. The problem arises with what follows, namely, that the Lamb of God is to take away the sin of the world. The Passover lamb was not understood as a sin offering and thus the shedding of its blood cannot be construed as making atonement for sin.
I tend favor the apocalyptic interpretation as most consistent with the Johannine tradition over all. Nevertheless, I believe that the suffering servant theme and the Passover tradition are also instructive and very much in the consciousness of the gospel writers. The fact that Jesus was crucified (according to John’s Gospel) the day before Passover at just the time when the Passover lambs would have been slain in preparation for the meal is suggestive. It seems to me that the death of the Passover lamb that shielded Israel from destruction is not so very inconsistent with the death of the servant in Isaiah whose ministry took the shape of suffering. Nor are these understandings inconsistent with the slain Lamb of God in Revelation who nonetheless is the only one mighty enough to open the seals to God’s future. Revelation 5:1-10.
Finally, we have the call of the first disciples. Two disciples of John the Baptist, one of which was Andrew the brother of Peter, follow Jesus in response to John’s testimony. They ask Jesus where he is staying and they wind up going to Jesus’ place of abode and “remaining” with him. Recall that beforehand John reported that he knew Jesus was the Lamb of God because he saw that the Spirit “remained with him.” The Greek word in both cases is the same and seems to indicate that, just as the Spirit remains or abides with Jesus, so Jesus’ disciples abide with him. Through him they will also have access to the Spirit. Indeed, Jesus will make that very point later on when he tells his disciples, “Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me.” John 15:4. Again, the word translated as “abide,” is the same word translated as “remain” in our lesson. Abiding in Jesus seems to be all important. Perhaps that is why John’s gospel ends the way the Synoptics begin: with the disciples leaving their nets behind and following Jesus. See John 21:15-22.
BAPTISM OF OUR LORD
PRAYER OF THE DAY: O God our Father, at the baptism of Jesus you proclaimed him your beloved Son and anointed him with the Holy Spirit. Make all who are baptized into Christ faithful to their calling to be your daughters and sons, and empower us all with your Spirit, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.
After over thirty years in ministry which have included more baptisms than I can count, I am still not sure I am doing the job properly. I have never wavered in my commitment to infant baptism. Yes, I know there is no specific reference to it in the New Testament. My confidence rests on the conviction that, when all is said and done, baptism is a work of the Holy Spirit through water and the Word. If that were not the case, it wouldn’t be grace. But on the other hand, I have always been more than a little uneasy about how we mainline protestant types practice baptismal grace. There is more to baptism than those few minutes when the water is poured over the baptismal candidate’s head, the proud parents and sponsors smile and the inevitable flash goes off (despite written prohibitions in the bulletin and pleading from the pastor to refrain from so desecrating the sacrament). What we are witnessing is the birth of a child of God into the Body of Christ. Every parent knows that the birth of a baby is not the end of parenthood. It is but the beginning.
So what would you think of a set of parents who, after having a child, decide they do not want the responsibility of raising it and so abandon it in a dumpster or a vacant lot? If this hypothetical arouses the moral indignation I suspect, then I ask you to reflect upon the conduct of parents who routinely bring their children to the baptismal font to be grafted into the Body of Christ, promise to bring their children to the house of God, promise to teach their children the scriptures, the creeds and the ten commandments, promise to model for their children the life of discipleship-and don’t. If we believe what we say about the sacrament of baptism, then it seems to me that parents who fail to follow through with the baptismal vows made to their children are guilty of child abandonment every bit as egregious as the folks in my hypothetical. Furthermore, those of us pastors, teachers and church members who fail to hold such parents accountable and encourage them to step up to their responsibilities are just as guilty as the guy who hears muffled cries from the dumpster but walks on by figuring it is none of his business.
Convinced that I needed to reform the practice of baptism in my first congregation to comport with evangelical teaching, I initiated a new policy. I would baptize only the children of parents who were members of the congregation or who agreed to become members on the day of the baptism and participate regularly in the life of the congregation. That became problematic when devout members of the congregation asked me to baptize their grandchildren whose parents lived out of state and had no intention ever of joining my own or any other church. “Do you realize how hard I have worked to get my son and daughter-in-law to agree to this?” exclaimed one exasperated grandmother. “If you tell them they have to join a church to get the baby baptized, they are going to tell you to forget the whole thing. Then what? Do you want my grandchild to remain unsaved?” Of course, I was struggling on so many levels here: bad baptismal theology on the part of grandma; seeming indifference on the part of the parents; and ripples of hostility that I knew would run through a congregation that could not fathom a pastor’s refusal to baptize a baby. Nevertheless, I stuck to principle maintaining that baptismal discipline on the part of a caring congregation was essential to sound baptismal practice and ministry.
Though I still believe my policy was theologically sound, I must confess that I had little in the way of positive results to show for it. I lost a couple of friends, alienated some relatives and created some lasting resentment in my first congregation where the policy was implemented. As for the parents of the children I did not baptize, I am quite sure they went straight to the Yellow pages and found a pastor willing to do the job on their terms. So I abandoned my policy in subsequent calls to other congregations. I still have requirements. I insist on meeting with parents prior to the baptismal date. I explain to them my expectation that they will do what they are promising to do for their child. I also warn them that the congregation is promising to care for its adopted child and that, on behalf of the congregation, I intend to follow up with them. My stock phrase is: “I want you to understand that your child is about to become our child, a part of this church. I promise to make getting out of this church harder than getting out of the Mafia.” That usually gets an uncomfortable chuckle. But when push comes to shove, I don’t refuse to do baptisms-even when I’m pretty sure I am being lied to. In doubtful circumstances, I trust the Spirit of God hovering over the waters of the baptismal font and the power of the Word to create life out of nothingness. Isn’t that all we can do anyway?
Verses 1-4 constitute the first of four “servant songs” found in the second of three major sections of Isaiah. See Summary Article by Fred Gaiser, Professor of Old Testament, Luther Seminary, St. Paul, MN. The other three servant songs are found at Isaiah 49:1-6; Isaiah 50:4-11 and Isaiah 52:13-53:12. According to biblical commentator Claus Westermann, these songs represent a special strand within section two of Isaiah. Westermann, Claus, Isaiah 40-66, The Old Testament Library (c. SCM Press, Ltd. 1969) p. 92. This section (Isaiah 40-55), you may recall, is attributed to an unnamed prophet who lived among the Babylonian exiles during the 6th Century. His was the task of alerting his fellow exiles to the new opportunity created for them to return home to Palestine opened up by Persia’s conquest of Babylon. On the one hand, the prophet makes a joyous declaration of salvation for Israel and announces the potential for a new start. On the other hand, the prophet makes clear that God is doing with Israel something entirely new. This will not be a return to “the good old days” when Israel was a powerful and independent people under the descendants of David. That, according to the prophet, “is too light a thing” for the people of God. The servant and the servant people are to be given “as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.” Isaiah 49:6.
Scholars hold differing views on the identity of the “servant” in these songs. Some view the servant as an individual, perhaps the prophet him/herself. Others maintain that the servant is the people of Israel whose covenant life in the restored Jerusalem will enlighten the nations. Christians from very early on have seen reflected in these verses the ministry of Jesus. It seems to me that all of these interpretations are valid in some measure. Clearly, the prophet himself/herself understood that s/he was announcing an act of God that would be revelatory for all peoples. So too Israel always had an awareness that her existence was in part a demonstration of God’s glory to the world though, like the church, she tended to forget that aspect of her calling at times. The church likewise confessed from the outset that Jesus’ lordship was defined in terms of the hopes and expectations set forth in the Hebrew Scriptures. Just as the faithful service of the prophet was a model for Israel’s servant role among the nations, so the church is a continuation of Jesus’ faithful ministry. In sum, these differing interpretations enrich rather than contradict one another.
There is an interesting contrast here between the conquering Cyrus (referred to as God’s “anointed” or “messiah.” Isaiah 45:1) before whom God “breaks in pieces the doors of bronze” and the servant who will not break a “bruised reed” or extinguish a “dimly burning wick.” Vs. 3. To be sure, God turns Cyrus (and all nations) to God’s own redemptive purposes. But they have no knowledge or understanding of these purposes. As far as they know, they are simply pursuing their own national interests. In the end, it is not the might of Cyrus, but the quiet and faithful servant who will “bring forth justice.” The servant will accomplish this through his humble ministry of healing and compassion. It bears repeating that the witness of non-violence and redemption through peacemaking do not begin with Jesus. While the Hebrew Scriptures reflect the cruelty and violence of the cultures in which they were composed, these harsh realities serve merely as a backdrop for the peaceful reign of God to which they testify.
The messiah will not be “discouraged.” Vs. 4. The task of “establishing justice in the earth” though forgiveness, reconciliation and peacemaking requires much patience. That is a quality sorely lacking in human nature generally. We want justice now. We want peace in our time. Oddly, it is often our impatient longing for peace and justice that leads us down the false path of violence. In the face of tyranny, injustice and oppression, violence promises a swift solution. Kill the enemy. Overthrow the “axis of evil.” Fight fire with fire. In reality, however, the victory obtained by violence only sows the seeds of future violence. Yesterday’s “freedom fighters” armed to undermine Soviet power are today’s terrorists against whom we are told we must also fight. Efforts to destroy these new enemies are building up resentment in an upcoming generation of Afghan and Pakistani youths. We are merely sowing for our children a new crop of enemies that may well prove more threatening still. The “short cut” to peace and justice violence promises leads finally into a vortex of hate, breeding more and more violence and destruction.
As long as peace and justice remain abstract nouns, concepts or ideals to be achieved, they will remain forever beyond our reach. Jesus does not promise a way to peace and justice. He calls us to live justly and peacefully. It is through communities that embody the heart of God revealed in Jesus that God’s justice and peace are offered to the world. That is a hard word for impatient people who become discouraged when they cannot see measurable results from their life’s work. Disciples of Jesus know, however, that there are no shortcuts to the kingdom of God. The cross is the only way. It is a hard, slow and painful way. But it is the one sure way. That is what makes it such an incredibly joyful way.
Many commentators suggest that this psalm is an Israelite poet’s adaptation of an ancient Phoenician hymn praising Baal-Hadad, the Canaanite storm god. Other commentators have maintained that the psalm is a liturgical recital of God’s appearance to Israel on Mt. Sinai. Both views might be correct. Israel frequently borrowed liturgical and literary material from its neighbors in shaping its own worship traditions. Thus, a hymn originally praising the storm god in the wake of a particularly fierce weather event might have served as a template for this psalm memorializing God’s stormy appearance on Sinai. Nothing wrong with that. After all, Luther was said to compose hymns from drinking songs.
The psalmist unashamedly attributes to Israel’s God the awe inspiring and often destructive effects of a storm. That is a little unnerving for us moderns who are squeamish about attributing anything to God that isn’t “nice.” Indeed, this psalm is particularly embarrassing in the shadow of tragic, large scale weather events. Did God send this week’s blizzards and brutal cold over the country or just allow it to occur? Does it make any difference either way? Is it more comforting to believe that God just fell asleep at the wheel and allowed a tornado to happen rather than to believe that God deliberately sent one? Has the universe gotten so far out of God’s hands that God is no longer able to prevent hurricanes, earthquakes and tsunamis?
I don’t pretend to have neat answers to all these questions. But perhaps part of our problem is our homocentric view of things. Indeed, I would go further and suggest that the problem may be with our “me” centered approach to faith. It seems to me that a lot of our prayers are exceedingly self-centered. We pray for good weather on our vacations-even in times when our farms are desperate for rain. We pray for an economic recovery without any thought to the economic, ecological and social havoc our economy wreaks upon the world. Even our prayers for others often have a strong streak of selfishness in them. As the father of a child with a chronic medical condition, a day does not go by that I don’t pray for her healing. Yet lately I have been wondering about my motives. Am I looking for a special miracle? By what right do I get to push to the head of the line of parents with sick children to receive such special treatment? Thanks to the benefits of medical treatment afforded by our insurance plan, my daughter is able to live a relatively normal and healthy life despite her condition. So shouldn’t any miracle go to a child without these benefits? I find that too often my prayers do not venture beyond my own needs, concerns and the small circle of people in my small world.
Perhaps this psalm gives us some perspective. The psalmist does not begin his or her prayer with a request that God stop the storm or steer it in some other direction. The psalm begins with praise, awe and reverence for God. As Jesus taught his disciples, that is where all prayer needs to begin. Recall that in both of the creation stories from Genesis, the world was created first. In the first chapter of Genesis, the earth and all its creatures were created and declared good. Then human beings were created to rule over and care for the earth. Likewise in the second chapter of Genesis: the earth was created and God planted a garden in the earth. Then God created human beings to tend and care for the garden. The message is clear. It’s not all about us. The world was not designed to be a twenty-first century playground that is so well padded and equipped with safety features that no kid could ever possibly get hurt-or have any fun either. No, the world is far more like the way playgrounds used to be-places where you can really play. It pains me to no end that my grandchildren will probably never know the ecstasy of rocketing half way to the sky on a real swing set. Nor will they ever experience the dizzying high you could get from one of those merry-go-rounds that we used to crank up to warp speed. Our public parks have been cleansed of all such unacceptable risks. The attorneys and insurance underwriters who have taken over our lives have determined that fun is just too dangerous for kids.
But don’t get me started on that. We were talking about the psalm and the fact that we are not the center of God’s universe. As C.S. Lewis once pointed out, God is not a tame lion. God is not “safe” and neither is the world God made. There is no room in the Bible or in real life for a wimpy, weak kneed religion that longs for a “nice” god. You can get hurt on this planet and tragically so. But for all that, the earth is a good place to be. It’s a place where you can have real fun. Beauty the likes of which you see in the ocean, in the storm and on the top of Sinai necessarily has an element of terror. The psalmist doesn’t hide in the storm shelter and plead with God not to be so scary. The psalmist praises God for this awesome display of power and rejoices in the beauty, wonder and terror of creation. This is the glorious world God made and the stage on which God acts. The psalmist doesn’t complain about its dangers. S/he prays instead that Israel will find the courage to live boldly and faithfully in this grand universe. Anybody who whines about bad weather and wishes that God had made a safer planet has never been on a real swing!
As I pointed out in my opening remarks last week, acceptance of gentiles into the church was a contentious issue. Peter’s vision related in Acts 10:1-16 reflects the inner struggle of the deeply Jewish church with the positive response of gentiles to the good news about Jesus. Most Jews, like Peter, harbored serious reservations about receiving these outsiders into the church. How could these outsiders possibly have an informed and sincere faith in the Jewish messiah when they knew next to nothing about the Jewish scriptures and practices? What would be the consequences of an influx of these new comers? What conditions, if any, should be placed upon admission of a gentile believer? Must he be circumcised? Should he be required to learn the Hebrew Scriptures? Peter was on solid scriptural grounds with his scruples about eating ritually unclean food and sharing meal fellowship with non-Jews. Jewish believers under the Greek tyrant, Antiochus Epiphanes chose to endure torture and to die horrible deaths rather than eat food deemed unclean as demanded. I Maccabees 1:62-64. How could Peter go into the home of a Roman, an oppressor of Israel to eat his unclean food at his unclean table? Would this not dishonor the memory of the brave martyrs under Antiochus?
Peter’s declaration “that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him…is acceptable to him” came only after much difficult soul searching. Peter had to give up his long held interpretation of the scriptures and religious practices that had been part of his life since infancy. That did not come easily. I suspect it was not until Peter witnessed the Holy Spirit breathing life giving faith into the Roman Cornelius and his family that he became fully convinced that these folks should be baptized. He simply decided that any interpretation of the scriptures that stands between Jesus and a believing heart cannot possibly be right no matter how clear, convincing and well established it may be.
This story of Peter and Cornelius, along with my having met many gay and lesbian people of faith over the years, is what ultimately convinced me that the church must be fully inclusive and welcoming to these folks. When all is said and done; when all the scriptural arguments have been made; there remains the fact that the Holy Spirit has moved a person to faith in Jesus. I find myself asking, as did Peter, “Can anyone forbid water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?” Acts 10:47.
The relationship between Jesus and John the Baptist has always been a subject of dispute among New Testament scholars. About all they can seem to agree upon is the fact that Jesus was baptized by John. Knowing as little as we do about John the Baptist and what his ministry represented, that isn’t much to go on. How did John understand his own role? The New Testament portrays him as Jesus’ forerunner, but did he see himself that way? It seems obvious to me that John saw himself as the forerunner of somebody. The gospels all agree on this point and, unless one rejects the gospel narratives as reliable information about John (some biblical scholars have), then it seems that John understood his baptism as a preparation for the coming of the Messiah. The Gospel of Matthew very explicitly identifies John’s ministry with the return of Elijah foretold in Malachi 4:5. see Matthew 17:9-13. Knowing what we do about the fate of John, this revelation can only alert us to the reception the Messiah will finally receive at the hands of Rome and the religious leadership in Jerusalem.
The larger question is: Why would Jesus seek out and submit to a baptism of repentance? Mark and Luke see no need to deal with this obvious question. The Gospel of John does not specifically state the Jesus was baptized by John, only that John bears witness to Jesus. Matthew, by contrast, puts into the mouth of John himself the question we must all be asking. “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” vs. 14. Jesus’ response is that his receipt of John’s baptism is necessary to “fulfill all righteousness.” But does that explain why Jesus would need a baptism of repentance? I suppose that depends on how you understand the word “repent.” Literally, the Greek word means to turn around or go in a new direction. In the New Testament context, the term means turning toward God and God’s will. For sinful human beings, that necessarily means turning away from sin. But for Jesus, the sinless Son of God, it means simply to turn toward God. That is not to say that Jesus ever was turned away from God, but merely that Jesus’ turning toward God is much the same as his being “eternally begotten of the Father.” As the obedient Son, Jesus is always turning toward God. Only as the Word becomes incarnate and becomes flesh (to borrow John’s language) does this turning appear as a discrete act rather than an intrinsic and essential aspect of his being. So understood, Jesus’ baptism into the body of people prepared by John for the coming of the Messiah is but another step in his messianic mission of drawing that body into the Kingdom of Heaven.
“This fulfilling takes place in the adoption of baptism: in that the Messianic judge of the worlds and the Messianic baptizer himself becomes a candidate for baptism, humbles himself and enters the ranks of sinners. By this means he fulfils ‘all righteousness.’” Barth, Gerhard, “Matthew’s Understanding of the Law,” printed in Tradition and Interpretation in Matthew, The New Testament Library (c. SCM Press Ltd 1963) p. 138. It is important to recognize that for both John and Jesus, righteousness has nothing to do with adherence to an objective moral code and everything to do with being rightly related to God and to neighbor. Nolland, John, The Gospel of Matthew-A Commentary on the Greek Text, The New International Greek Testament Commentary (c. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.) p. 154. That is not to say, of course, that the law has no importance for Matthew. To the contrary, Matthew more than any of the other gospel writers emphasizes Jesus as the fulfilment of the law, no part of which can be set aside as long as heaven and earth endure. Matthew 5:17-18. Yet for this very reason righteousness must grow not out of slavish obedience to the letter of the law, but out of faithfulness to Jesus. The latter righteousness exceeds the righteousness of the law as demonstrated by the Sermon on the Mount.
This gospel lesson is rich with references and allusions to the Hebrew Scriptures. The declaration of the divine voice is almost a direct quote from Psalm 2:
I will tell of the decree of the Lord:
He said to me, ‘You are my son;
today I have begotten you.
8 Ask of me, and I will make the nations your heritage,
and the ends of the earth your possession.
9 You shall break them with a rod of iron,
and dash them in pieces like a potter’s vessel.’
Psalm 2:7-9. Matthew’s allusion to this psalm reflects his conviction that Jesus is indeed Israel’s king. Yet this declaration must be juxtaposed to the so called “king of the Jews” we have already met, namely, Herod. The coronation of Jesus at his baptism signals a new kind of king that exercises a very different sort of power and calls us into a kingdom radically different from any nation or kingdom the world has ever known.
More distant scriptural echoes are heard in the creation out of the watery chaos in Genesis 1:1-2; the liberation of Israel from slavery into freedom by passage through the Red Sea. Exodus 14:1-15:2. Matthew means to let us know that, although Jesus is by every measure the king that was David, the teacher that was Moses and the prophet that was Elijah, he is much more. The presence of the Holy Spirit brooding over the waters of the Jordan into which Jesus enters and emerges testifies that God is doing something altogether new here. In the words of Stan Hauerwas, “Jesus is unleashed into the world. His mission will not be easy, for the kingdom inaugurated by his life and death is not one that can be recognized on the world’s terms. He is the beloved Son who must undergo the terror produced by our presumption that we are our own creators. He submits to John’s baptism just as he will submit to the crucifixion so that we might know how God would rule the world. His journey begins. Matthew would have us follow.” Hauerwas, Stanley, Matthew, Brozos Theological Commentary on the Bible (c. 2006 by Stanley Hauerwas, pub. by Brazos Press) p. 49.