Archive for December, 2014
SECOND SUNDAY OF CHRISTMAS
PRAYER OF THE DAY: Almighty God, you have filled all the earth with the light of your incarnate Word. By your grace empower us to reflect your light in all that we do, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.
Although I will be preaching from the texts for the Second Sunday of Christmas, we will be observing the Epiphany of our Lord at Trinity on Sunday, January 4th. I believe the gospel lesson is particularly appropriate for the day. The word “epiphany” comes from the Greek verb,” epiphanein,” to “reveal” or “make manifest.” That is precisely what John’s gospel does with Jesus. John unwraps Jesus slowly, deliberately and with great tenderness as one might unwrap a precious gift. He describes Jesus as “the light of men,” telling us that the “light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.”
The light ought to bring us joy. I don’t know about you, but I derive a good bit of comfort knowing that the shortest day of the year is behind us and that, from here on out, the days will be getting longer and the nights shorter. While I have never been diagnosed with seasonal affective disorder, I know that I thrive on light. For me, the worst part of losing our power after Hurricane Sandy was the darkness. Even during the day it seemed we were always moving about in semi-darkness. Nothing was more maddening than reactively flipping on the light switch to no avail. What a delight it was when the power came back flooding the house with light!
But John tells us that the world is less than thrilled with the light of Jesus. “He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world knew him not. He came to his own home, and his own people received him not.” Why would anyone shun the light? The answer comes to us later in the gospel when John tells us: “And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil.” The problem with light is that it reveals everything-even the stuff we prefer not to see. I would rather not know what my country does to people in musty dungeons far “off the grid” in the name of fighting terrorism. I would prefer not to know who made the items I buy, or under what sort of working conditions they were made or how the workers making them were compensated. I would rather not believe that racism pervades the culture in which I live, making me blind to the injustice and pain experienced by people of color in my land. But the truth cannot be had piecemeal. It’s an all or nothing proposition. The light illuminates all things indiscriminately, good, bad and ugly.
Still, for all the pain, embarrassment and discomfort the light can bring, it is nevertheless “life.” So says John the Evangelist. To those who receive Jesus, to all who are willing to be instructed by him, exposed by him and transformed by him, “he gives power to become the children of God.” Knowing Jesus is knowing the heart of God whose desire is not our destruction, but our salvation. That gives us the courage we need to see ourselves and our world, not as we fancy them to be, but as they truly are. Knowing Jesus also reveals to us all that our world can and will be. It may take our eyes some time to adjust to the light, accustomed as they are to the darkness. Indeed, our initial reaction to the light might very well be to avert our gaze, cover our eyes and remain in the darkness. But, in the words of the hymn: “Morning dispels, gently compels, and we’re drawn to the light of God.” “Drawn to the Light,” John C. Ylvisaker, Evangelical Lutheran Worship, # 593. May it be so!
Our lesson is taken from Jeremiah’s “Book of Consolation,” consisting of Jeremiah 30:1-31:40. These oracles are thought to have been collected by Jeremiah’s scribe, Baruch, and reflect the period between 622 B.C.E. and 609 B.C.E. During this period the Southern Kingdom of Judah was under the reign of King Josiah who, during the collapse of the Assyrian Empire, manage to restore Judah to independence and to a measure of national prominence. Under his leadership, Judah was able to annex much of the land once occupied by the Northern Kingdom of Israel that had been destroyed and occupied by Assyria in 622 B.C.E. Jeremiah was probably a young man or perhaps just a boy when the Northern Kingdom fell. He laments that calamity with these memorable lines: “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 31:15. Rachel, of course, was the second wife of Jacob and the mother of Joseph. The northern tribes of Ephraim and Manasseh trace their lineage through Rachel and Joseph. Matthew’s gospel cites to this verse to express the grief of Bethlehem over the slaughter of its male children by Herod the Great. Matthew 2:18.
This section of Jeremiah, unlike so much of his work, reflects the joy and comfort available to the “remnant” from the Northern Kingdom now that they have been liberated from the yolk of Assyria. The Assyrians carried many of the Israelites of the Northern Kingdom into Exile throughout their empire. II Kings 17:1-6. Jeremiah voices an expectation that the new state of affairs brought about through Josiah’s annexation of what was once Israel will allow these exiles to return home. Vss. 10-11.
Jeremiah is clear that the northern tribes have no one but themselves to blame for their fate. The Assyrian conquest came upon Israel “because your guilt is great, because your sins are flagrant.” For this reason, God dealt her “the blow of an enemy.” Vs. 14. Yet even God’s punishment is an act of mercy designed to bring about repentance and faith. Thus, Israel ought not to complain that her “hurt is incurable.” Vs. 12. “For I will restore health to you,” says the Lord, “and your wounds I will heal.” Vs. 17. Assyria ought not to think that, because its military oppression has served as God’s instrument of discipline, it will suffer no consequences for its ruthlessness. This brutal empire will soon get a taste of its own medicine. God assures the oppressed northerners that “all who devour you shall be devoured, and all your foes, every one of them, shall go into captivity; those who despoil you shall become a spoil, and all who prey on you I will make a prey.” Vs. 16. That is precisely what occurred in 626 B.C.E. when the Babylonian general, Nabaplausur, took Assyria’s capital city, Nineveh.
The resulting relief given to Judah and other smaller countries of the Middle East was short lived. Recognizing the destabilizing threat posed by the rise of Babylon, Egypt’s Pharaoh Neco led his army north in order to prop up what remained of the Assyrian forces. According to the account in II Kings, Neco had no interest in engaging Judah but, for reasons best known to himself, King Josiah felt it necessary to confront the Egyptian army. The battle ended badly for Judah with the death of King Josiah and loss of independence to Egyptian vassalage. II Kings 23:29-30. According to II Chronicles 35:25, Jeremiah uttered a lament for this fallen king. No such oracle can be found, however, in the Book of the Prophet Jeremiah itself. Though it is quite possible that Jeremiah supported the religious reforms introduced by Josiah according to II Kings 23, it is likely that he felt they did not go far enough. In his preaching Jeremiah called for a change of heart commensurate with ritual practice. Torah was to be inscribed upon the hearts of the people under a new covenant. Jeremiah 31:31-34.
Jeremiah’s hope for the enslaved and exiled northern tribes did not come to fruition in his life time. Indeed, he lived to see also the conquest and exile of his own nation of Judah. Yet the people of Israel continued to find hope and direction from Jeremiah’s words and do so to this very day. Faithful readers of the scriptures know that prophecies are often fulfilled in ways greater and more wonderful than the biblical authors themselves could have imagined. The new heaven and the new earth foreshadowed in Jesus’ resurrection is quite beyond our own grasp. To the extent the scriptural witnesses can speak of the new creation at all, they must resort to parables, poems and apocalyptic imagery. Prophesy is designed, not to foretell the future, but to enlarge our imaginations so that we can recognize in the future the redemptive intent of our God.
As I find it altogether impossible to appreciate the verses making up Sunday’s lesson without taking Psalm 147 in its entirety, I will do so. I encourage you to read the whole psalm as well. Like the group of praise psalms to which it belongs consisting of Psalms 146-150, this psalm begins with the words, “Praise the LORD!” Or “Hallelujah” as pronounced in the Hebrew. Vs. 1
“How good it is” “Kee Tov.” An exclamation that is likewise used throughout the Psalms to express what is “good,” “right,” or “fitting.” E.g., “O give thanks unto the LORD, for He is good” Psalm 136:1; “O give thanks unto the LORD; for He is good; for His mercy endureth forever” Psalm 106:1.
“The LORD builds up Jerusalem; he gathers the outcasts of Israel.” Vs. 2. This verse pinpoints the composition of the psalm to Israel’s post-exilic period, probably between 510 B.C.E. and 400 B.C.E. After the destruction of Jerusalem and its Temple in 587 B.C.E., the leading citizens of the Southern Kingdom of Judah were carried away into Babylon where they lived as forced immigrants for nearly 70 years. Israel’s longing and hope for return from exile never died, however. In 539 B.C.E. Cyrus the Great conquered Babylon. Cyrus, who lived from 580 B.C.E.-529 B.C.E., was the first Achaemenian Emperor of Persia. He issued a decree providing, among other things, that Babylon’s captive peoples were free to return to their homelands to restore their shrines and worship traditions. Inscribed on a clay cylinder, it has come to be known as the first declaration of Human Rights. This artifact is in the custody of the British Museum. A replica is also on display at the United Nations in New York. Known as “The Kurash Prism,” this decree reads as follows:
“I am Kurash [ “Cyrus” ], King of the World, Great King, Legitimate King, King of Babilani, King of Kiengir and Akkade, King of the four rims of the earth, Son of Kanbujiya, Great King, King of Hakhamanish, Grandson of Kurash, Great king, King of Hakhamanish, descendant of Chishpish, Great king, King of Hakhamanish, of a family which always exercised kingship; whose rule Bel and Nebo love, whom they want as king to please their hearts. When I entered Babilani as a friend and when I established the seat of the government in the palace of the ruler under jubilation and rejoicing, Marduk, the great lord, induced the magnanimous inhabitants of Babilani to love me, and I was daily endeavoring to worship him…. As to the region from as far as Assura and Susa, Akkade, Eshnunna, the towns Zamban, Me-turnu, Der as well as the region of the Gutians, I returned to these sacred cities on the other side of the Tigris the sanctuaries of which have been ruins for a long time, the images which used to live therein and established for them permanent sanctuaries. I also gathered all their former inhabitants and returned them to their habitations. Furthermore, I resettled upon the command of Marduk, the great lord, all the gods of Kiengir and Akkade whom Nabonidus had brought into Babilani to the anger of the lord of the gods, unharmed, in their former temples, the places which make them happy.” Internet Ancient History Sourcebook.
“He heals the broken-hearted, and binds up their wounds.” Vs. 3. This is a particularly moving verse and a source of great comfort to people in all kinds of circumstances. Though this psalm is one of praise glorifying God for all the great things God has done, the psalmist is mindful that songs of praise arise from deliverance out of circumstances of dire need. The psalmist who composed this beautiful hymn of praise celebrating a keen awareness of God’s presence is also mindful that we sometimes experience God’s seeming absence. S/he has also had occasion to pray, “Out of the depths have I called Thee, O LORD.” Psalm 130:1.
“Great is our Lord, and abundant in power; his understanding is beyond measure.” Vs. 5. Compare and contrast this affirmation to that of Cyrus in the Prisim. It is the God of Israel who makes the stars in the sky. This God’s understanding and power are beyond measure-unlike the gods to which Cyrus refers whose power is limited to their geographic domains. We see again the contrast between ancient Mid Eastern religion and that of Israel in verse 6. Cyrus feels that he must return the images of all of the god’s held in Babylon to their rightful temples in order to placate them and earn success. Little does he know that his success was ordained by Israel’s God long before he arrived in Babylon! See Isaiah 45:1-3. Moreover, it is not by placating God, whether by sacrifices or obedience to the law, that the earth produces food for people and animals. God does this of his own volition, regardless of what people do or do not do. Vss. 8-9. “[God’s] delight is not in the strength of a horse, nor his pleasure in the legs of a man; but the Lord takes pleasure in those who fear him, in those who hope in his steadfast love.” Vss. 10-11. By contrast, the Prism reflects a belief that divine favor is manifested in military victory and that power and prosperity are signs of divine favor. But that is not the case. God’s favor is found in his mercy toward those who humbly rely upon his promises and look to him for all their needs.
Our lesson, consisting of verses 12-20, declares that God’s greatest work does not lie in any of his marvelous doings in nature, but in his relationship with Israel which has been blessed by God’s commandments and statutes. This is what distinguishes Israel among the peoples. As Israel learned through bitter experience, neither her land, her temple nor her king were essential to her existence as a people. Israel lost all of these things in the Babylonian conquest. What Israel did not lose and can never lose are God’s covenant promises to her and God’s declaration that Israel will forever be his people. God remains faithful to his promises even when God’s chosen people depart form theirs. So it continues to be. The word and promise spoken to us in our baptisms is irrevocable. The psalm appropriately ends exactly as it began: “Hallelujah”
In the lesson for today from the Letter to the Ephesians, the writer articulates an unmistakable belief in predestination. It is critical, however, to understand this teaching within the total context of the letter. “With all wisdom and insight [God] has made known to us the mystery of his will, according to his good pleasure that he set forth in Christ, as a plan for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth.” Vss. 8-10. Consequently, the church is not the select few that God has graciously decided to snatch from the deck of a sinking ship. God’s concern is not merely with particular passengers, but with the entire ship. Thus, to be predestined for faith in Jesus is not to be elevated to a position of special privilege. It is instead a commission to witness and embody the plan God has for all people. Thus, the church is the first fruits of and a testimony to God’s plan to “gather up all things in heaven and on earth.” Vs. 10.
I believe that this is particularly pertinent to the observation of Epiphany during which we are compelled to recognize how, as non-Jewish believers, we come into the covenant relationship God has with Israel by Jesus’ gracious invitation. We are not here by right. That has recently come to shape the way I express hospitality toward visitors to my congregation whose relationship to Christ, faith and the church are tenuous at best. At our Christmas Eve Eucharist, my daughter Emily preached a first rate sermon using the example of children’s Christmas pageants in order to illustrate our desire for participation in the drama of the Nativity. This worship service, I should say, was an outreach experiment designed to appeal to families with small children in our community. I was pleased to see that at least half the participants were folks I had never seen before.
When it came time for Holy Communion, a couple of these families came forward to receive. I handed the host to a woman followed by two children. “I’m not sure we should be here,” she said. “We are not baptized or anything.” I always wondered what I would do in a circumstance like this. After all, I have always been taught and believed that Baptism is the door by which we are born into the church and Eucharist is the feast of the baptized. But here was an unbaptized person who had just heard and was accepting our invitation to participate in the mystery of the Incarnation. What else could I say but what I said? “Yes, you should be here. This is still Christ’s Body given for you.” To say anything less would have been to place a stumbling block in the way of Christ. I am currently working on re-writing the invitation to the Lord’s Table used in our worship bulletin.
“When you collect marine animals there are certain flat worms so delicate that they are almost impossible to catch whole for they will break and tatter under the touch. You must let them ooze and crawl of their own will onto a knife blade and lift them gently into your bottle of sea water. And perhaps that might be the way to write this book-to open the page and let the stories crawl in by themselves.” John Steinbeck from his novel, Cannery Row.
I think that is perhaps the best way to describe how John writes his gospel. Rather than relating the story of Jesus’ birth, John gives us a poem about the miracle of the Incarnation filled with many opposite, contrasting and complementary images that will be developed and brought into sharper focus throughout the following narrative. Light and darkness; being and nothingness; knowledge and ignorance; belief and unbelief; birth from flesh and birth from God. All of these images and terms will find further expression and deeper meaning as the story of Jesus unfolds. For now, though, they swim about together in the rich primordial soil of John’s imaginative lyrics. We must wait for them to ooze out and show themselves for what they truly are.
John begins with the declaration that the Word was both with God in the beginning and was God. This is entirely consistent with the Hebrew Scriptures which speak of God’s Word as “coming” and “accomplishing.” See, e.g., Jeremiah 1:2; Isaiah 55:11. God is not merely as good as God’s Word. God is God’s Word. Yet even though the same as God, the Word is somehow distinguishable from God. So far, I think, our Jewish and Muslim sisters and brothers might agree with John.
But then John goes on to tell us something remarkable. “The Word became flesh.” The Word became a human person such that the invisible God is now visible. Here, I believe, is where the church’s confession parts company with our Abrahamic sisters and brothers. If we are going to say that God has a Son, it seems to follow inevitably that there must be at least two gods. Yet John (along with the rest of the New Testament writers) maintains that God is one. The church has struggled with this enormously counterintuitive confession from the onset, rejecting numerous more plausible alternative understandings. At the heart of the Incarnation stands this one scandalous truth: God is visible and God is human. The Incarnation was not a temporary state into which God entered for a single lifetime. It was not merely a clever disguise. In Jesus, God became irrevocably human and remains so. That is why John can say in his First Letter, “If anyone says, ‘I love God,’ and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen, cannot love God whom he has not seen.” I John 4:20.
The inescapable conclusion is that to rend the flesh of another human being is to rend the flesh of God. To ridicule, excoriate or insult another human being is to blaspheme God. God cannot be harmed or insulted by the removal of a crèche or a cross from public lands, disrespect for the Bible or desecration of a sanctuary. Only by harming the persons created to bear God’s image and for whom the Son of God died can God’s self be injured. When that becomes clear, it is equally clear by how far much of what passes for Christianity these days misses the mark. Something is seriously out of whack when we grieve more over the removal of humanly designed plastic figures of Jesus from the park than we do for the homeless people created by God in God’s image who are still sleeping there.
One of the most significant words in this section is that word “dwelt” or “lived” as the New Revised Standard Version has it. Vs. 14. Both translations fall short of the actual Greek word “skaiano” which means literally to “tent with” or “tabernacle with.” The word conjures up images of the tent of presence in which God dwelt among the people of Israel on their journey to the Promised Land. This powerful image of Jesus as God’s presence gets lost in the English translation!
There is far more that could be said about this section of John. Nearly every word in John’s gospel is freighted with meaning that accumulates like the mass of a snowball rolling downhill. For those of us who will be observing the Feast of Epiphany on Sunday, the contrast between light and darkness is particularly meaningful.
FIRST SUNDAY OF CHRISTMAS
PRAYER OF THE DAY
Almighty God, you wonderfully created the dignity of human nature and yet more wonderfully restored it. In your mercy, let us share the divine life of the one who came to share our humanity, Jesus Christ, your Son, our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.
The Sunday after Christmas is usually a bust in my congregation-at least as far as attendance is concerned. We are all worn out from celebrating Advent with midweek Eucharist in addition to our Sunday services. Top that off with two Christmas Eve Services, add on all of the craziness of the “holiday season” we cannot seem to escape, and you have an exhausted congregation. Yet there are always some who manage to come to church just the same. Do they come simply out of habit? A lingering sense of duty left over from the society in which they came of age? Or do they come because they are expecting something real? Perhaps the good news about the Incarnation was heard over the holiday din. Maybe these are folks like Anna and Simeon who continue coming to the holy place even though the high holidays are over. Maybe they are present because they believe the promise that the Christ child will be revealed to them, if only they cling persistently to this little community having audacity to call itself the “Body of Christ.”
Of course, I can’t see into people’s hearts, but I have discovered that it’s a good deal easier to preach once Christmas is past. Suddenly, I am not competing anymore with a million alternatives to church that are more interesting, gratifying and attractive. Suddenly, I am not faced with an audience that I have just one or two chances to reach. I am among my own people now. I am with folks who understand that the miracle of the Incarnation dawns slowly. They don’t expect me to reveal the whole truth in a single sermon. In fact, most of these folks would keep on coming if they never heard anything worthwhile from my mouth. It’s not really about me. It’s about the child. It’s about God’s promise that we will see him in water, word and holy eating. We are the ones still looking for a new heaven and a new earth when the party is over, the carols have ceased and the tree is out on the curb.
We read in our gospel lesson that Anna spoke of the Christ child “to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem.” The implication is that some folks were not looking for such redemption. Perhaps they had given up. Maybe they no longer believed that their poor city, firmly under the boot heels of Rome, was capable of redemption. Perhaps most of the people passing through the temple precincts that day thought Anna a bit daft. Religion is a fine thing, to be sure. But this old woman seems a little too fixated on it. Who on earth would spend a lifetime in prayer? Doesn’t this woman have a job? Family? Grandchildren to take care of? I expect that a lot of folks walked past Anna just the way most of us would pass a raving lunatic on the street. Pick up the pace, don’t make eye contact and continue on to your destination without looking back.
But some people apparently were looking for the same thing Anna was seeking. For some people, her words struck a chord of recognition. They evidently saw in her hunger, her yearning a reflection of their own need. So they stopped. They listened. They came near to see the infant squirming in Simeon’s arms. I have no idea how many of these people there were. A crowd? Just a handful? However many or few may have been gathered around the ancient prophetess, there were at least some left in Jerusalem that could still dream. The last embers of hope had not yet been extinguished. They still have not been extinguished. That is because our faithful God continues to send us prophets like Anna to fan them into white hot flame just when it seems they are about to go cold. That’s incredibly good news for those of us who will be gathering this Sunday.
The text comes to us from what scholars typically call “Trito-Isaiah” or Third Isaiah constituting chapters 56-66 in the Book of Isaiah. This section of oracles is principally the work of a prophet who ministered after the return of the Jewish exiles from Babylon, but before reconstruction of the temple in Jerusalem. In terms of dating, this time period runs from 530 B.C.E. to 510 B.C.E. Our particular lesson is a continuation of the “core” section of Third Isaiah, the beginning of which we saw in our lesson for the Third Sunday of Advent. See my post for December 14th for background information.
Having just delivered an oracle of salvation in the voice of the Lord (vss. 8-9), the prophet now breaks into a psalm of praise in his own voice. S/he declares that God has “clothed” him or her with “salvation” and “righteousness.” Vs. 61:10. To Lutherans like me, this language suggests the righteousness and salvation won for us through Jesus’ innocent suffering and death, i.e., vicarious satisfaction, substitutionary atonement, etc. But the theology of substitutionary atonement is not a good fit for this oracle (nor is it a good fit for any scriptural text, but that is a topic for another day). Here God’s salvation refers specifically to God’s gracious act of restoring the exiles to their homeland and God’s promise to exalt Israel among the nations. Because the proclamation of God’s word and the fulfilment of that word are viewed by the prophet as a single continuous act, the prophet bearing the word is clothed with the salvation and righteousness the word is destined to bring about. It is the prophet’s identification with God’s word, his or her soul’s exalting in God that clothes him or her in righteousness and salvation. Vs. 61:10. Of course, it is not only the prophet who will be so clothed. “Righteousness and praise” will spring forth before “all the nations.” Vs. 61:11. As surely as the earth brings forth vegetation, so will the word of God the prophet proclaims bring forth righteousness that will embrace the world and incite praise. Vs. 61: 11.
“For Zion’s sake I will not keep silent…” Vs. 62:1. Who is speaking here? Is this a continuation of the prophet’s discourse? Or are we now hearing the voice of the Lord? Does it matter? Most commentators believe that the words in chapter 62 are spoken in the voice of the prophet. Westermann, Claus, Isaiah 40-66, The Old Testament Library (c. 1969 by SCM Press Ltd) p. 374 citing Voltz, P., Iesaja, Leipzig, 1932. However that might be, I agree with Westermann that this sentence must be understood as a reply to the classical Hebrew lament, “How Long?” best illustrated throughout Psalm 13. “How long wilt thou forget me?” “How long wilt thou hide thyself from me?” “How long must I bear pain in my soul?” “How long shall the enemy be exalted over me?” The prophet’s/God’s response is “not much longer.”
It is important that the nations see Israel’s vindication. Vs. 62:2. The rebirth of a righteous people exalted by God makes known to the world the heart and gracious intent of God for all peoples. In much the same way, the resurrection of Jesus vindicates the community called church shaped by the Sermon on the Mount and suffering as a consequence of so living. It is not the great empires that “fret and strut” their hour upon the stage and are heard from no more that reflect God’s glory and implement God’s design. It is the people of the covenant living faithfully under the gracious reign of their God who embody God’s future for all humankind. Life within the covenant is God’s alternative way of being human.
“You shall be called by a new name, which the Lord your God will give you.” Vs. 62:2. A new name signifies a change in status. God changes Abram’s name (meaning exalted father) to Abraham (father of nations or peoples). Genesis 17:5. Jacob is re-named Israel. Genesis 32:28. The names “Forsaken” and “desolate,” often given to Israel by the prophets in their declarations of judgment, will no longer apply. Instead, the people will be called “My Delight is in her” and “Married” (as opposed to divorced or abandoned). Vs. 4 (not in our reading).
“You shall be a crown of beauty in the hand of the Lord, and a royal diadem in the hand of your God.” Vs. 3. Note well that the symbol of God’s sovereignty is a people without an army and without any sovereign status. God exercises God’s power through God’s covenant relationship with Israel. Divine sovereignty is exercised by the power of example rather than by an example of power. The prophet therefore calls into question the church’s Constantinian assumptions about the necessity of state sanctioned violence to establish and maintain order. More specifically for us Lutherans, the prophet puts the lie to our understanding of the state as God’s instrument of civil peace enabling the church to undertake its spiritual mission. As I have said many times before, pacifism is not one of many biblical themes. It is the biblical theme that finds its ultimate expression in the cross.
This psalm is one of a group (Psalms 146-150) that begins and ends with the expression of praise, “hallelujah” or “Praise YAHWEH.” 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.” Vs. 14. 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.
Vs. 1 “Praise the Lord!” or “Halleluiah” A refrain that appears again and again throughout the psalm. The word “Yah” is a Hebrew short form for the name “Yahweh.” “Hallel” is the word for praise or singing.
Vs. 2 “all his angels” or “Kol Melachw” in Hebrew literally translated means “all his messengers.” “All his hosts” or “Cal Zaboth” likely refers to angelic beings. The similar term, “Yahweh Zaboth,” is common throughout the Old Testament and is often translated “Lord of Hosts.” It can also be translated “Lord of Armies” or “Lord of the heavenly beings.”
Vs. 3 “Cal Cochav Or” or “all you points of light.” The stars are called to give praise to God as are the sun and moon. This is reminiscent of a passage in the book of Job: “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding. Who determined its measurements—surely you know! Or who stretched the line upon it? On what were its bases sunk, or who laid its cornerstone when the morning stars sang together and all the heavenly beings shouted for joy?” Job 38:4-7.
Vs. 4 “You waters that are above the heavens.” Here we see a reference to ancient cosmology-the understanding of the earth as subsisting inside of a great bubble with the waters above held back by the sky and those beneath confined to the sea bed. Though perhaps not entirely consistent with our 21st Century understanding of the cosmos, it nevertheless displays a profound recognition that our existence is precarious and preserved only by the creative Word of the Lord holding all of the destructive forces of nature in check.
“He commanded and they were created.” Vs. 5. See Genesis 1 in which the universe is called into being by the command, “Let there be!” In verse 6 the psalmist declares that God “established them forever and ever; he fixed their bounds which cannot be passed.” There is an echo here of Yahweh’s promise to Noah: “Then Noah built an altar to the LORD, and took of every clean animal and of every clean bird, and offered burnt-offerings on the altar. And when the LORD smelt the pleasing odor, the LORD said in his heart, ‘I will never again curse the ground because of humankind, for the inclination of the human heart is evil from youth; nor will I ever again destroy every living creature as I have done. As long as the earth endures, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night, shall not cease.’” Genesis 8: 20-22.
“Ye sea monsters and all deeps” Vs. 7. In Canaanite mythology, the sea monster Tiamat was an evil symbol of chaos that reigned before creation. We can hear an echo of that in Genesis 1:2 where the pre-creation state of things is referred to as “Tohu Vabohu” or “without form and void.” In the Canaanite creation myth, Tiamat is defeated in a great battle with the sky god Maraduk. There is no “struggle” in the creation story, however. When God speaks, the waters withdraw and order is introduced into the universe. Fire, hail, snow and ice-all potentially destructive forces-were very much feared in a culture of subsistence farmers. Vs. 8. Yet even these powers serve the will of God. In verses 9-10 we are reminded of the creation account in Genesis chapter 1 where God creates each species according to its kind, including the “creeping things.”
In verses 11-12 “kings and princes of all the earth” give praise to God. This is reminiscent of the universal appeal found in Second Isaiah: “Turn to me and be saved, all the ends of the earth! For I am God, and there is no other. By myself I have sworn, from my mouth has gone forth in righteousness a word that shall not return: ‘To me every knee shall bow every tongue shall swear.’” Isaiah 45:22-23.
“He has raised up a horn for his people, praise for all his faithful, for the people of Israel who are close to him.” Vss. 13-14. The psalm comes to a climax with praise to God for what he has done for Israel. This is quite by design. Though Israel surely recognized her God as Lord of Creation, God’s saving power and loving kindness are demonstrated not chiefly in the realm of nature, but in the realm of history. It was in the Exodus that God showed Himself as the God of mercy who glories in raising up the slave and putting down the mighty. It is through God’s faithfulness to his covenant with Israel that God makes himself known as the God who keeps promises. So also in the New Testament God demonstrates that God is not merely “as good as His Word,” but that God in fact is God’s Word. See John 1:1-18.
For background information on Paul’s Letter to the Galatians, see Summary Article by James Boyce, Professor of New Testament and Greek at Luther Seminary, St. Paul, MN on enterthebible.org. Our lesson is a summarization of the main point Paul is making in this letter. Our salvation is relational. That is to say, we are redeemed not by adherence to the letter of the law, but through trusting Jesus, God’s Son through whom we have been adopted as God’s children. Paul contrasts the master/slave relationship governed by law, threat and the fear of punishment with the parent/child relationship that is grounded in parental love inspiring trust on the part of the child.
It is important to understand that Paul is not antinomian or hostile to Torah. The relationship between parent and child is not without boundaries, rules and expectations. The difference is that, as between parent and child, the rules serve the relationship. The relationship is not defined by the rules. That is enormously important because a lot of religion these days, much of it going under the name of Christianity, is more about rules than it is about our relationship with Jesus. For too many people, the Bible is essentially a rule book. The problem with that approach lies with the Bible itself. Its rules are frequently contradictory and always contextual. Nobody keeps all the rules in the Bible. So which ones do we keep? If you are going to raise up one passage out of Leviticus to condemn male homosexual conduct as “abominable,” don’t you have to say the same for people who eat lobster, also an abomination? See Leviticus 11:9-12; Leviticus 18:22. Which abominations are more abominable and why? As long as you maintain that the Bible is a rule book, you will never get past that argument.
Jesus makes clear that, while there are rules in the Bible and that these rules must be taken seriously, not all rules are equal. When asked which commandment was the greatest, Jesus replied that there are two that tower over all the rest: Love God and love your neighbor as yourself. Mark 12:28-34. If you interpret the Torah in any manner such that it detracts from love for God and compassion for your neighbor or if you construe the scriptures in ways that drive people away from God’s loving embrace, you have got it wrong. That is why I say repeatedly (and most often in vain) to people who insist that biblical provisions preclude full inclusion of GLBT persons, “Look, you can scream ‘Bible, Bible, Bible’ in my face until hell freezes over and I’m going to keep replying “Jesus, Jesus, Jesus.” Either you use (abuse) people to serve the interests of the particular law that suits your fancy, or you put the whole law to work in the service of God and your neighbor. That is the very issue Paul addresses in his Letter to the Galatians.
Luke seems to be conflating a couple of Hebrew Scriptural traditions in this lesson. The first is the rite of purification for Mary following the birth of Jesus. This requirement is spelled out in Leviticus 12. The second is the required ransom of the firstborn. Exodus 13:1-16; Exodus 34:18-20; Numbers 18:16. The offering of “a pair of turtle doves, or two young pigeons” clearly pertains to the purification. No mention is made of the five shekel fee required to redeem a first born male child. It appears, though, that Luke is far more concerned with getting Jesus into the Temple than he is with explaining whatever ritual purpose might have brought him there. Luke’s purpose appears to be that of echoing the presentation of Samuel “to the house of the Lord at Shiloh.” I Samuel 1:24. 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. 450-451. Just as the shrine at Shiloh was the backdrop for Samuel’s consecration, so the temple serves as the staging for Jesus’ initiation into God’s service.
Luke’s gospel both begins and ends in the temple. The story opens with Zechariah’s service in the temple and ends with the disciples returning to the temple “blessing God” following Jesus’ ascension. Luke 1:5-25; Luke 24:50-53. When Jesus goes MIA during a family pilgrimage to Jerusalem, he is found in the temple “about his Father’s business.” Luke 2:41-51. It may be that in drawing the implied parallel between the sanctuary at Shiloh (destroyed by the Philistines) and the temple in Jerusalem, Luke is foreshadowing the temple’s destruction by the Romans in 70 C.E. I must add that I have not found any commentary to support me on this. I may well be reading too much into the text. Nonetheless, I cannot help but believe that Luke has some literary/theological purpose in mind with all of his temple episodes.
Significantly, the main actors in this temple drama are not the priests responsible for performing the rites that allegedly drew the family to the temple in the first place. It is the prophetic voice of old Simeon that articulates Jesus’ calling. Vss. 25-35. Through revelation of some kind, Simeon has learned that he will see the Lord’s messiah before his dying day. Vs. 26. The Holy Spirit leads Simeon to the temple where his prophetic vision is fulfilled. Now he can die in peace.
Simeon’s song of blessing anchors Jesus’ mission in Israel’s longing for salvation and her hope for a renewed existence. He was, after all, “looking for the consolation of Israel” and found it in Jesus. Vs. 25. Yet Simeon’s words to the effect that God’s salvation has been prepared “in the presence of all peoples” and that the messiah is to be “a light for revelation to the gentiles” foreshadow the movement of the church in the Book of Acts beyond the scope of Israel. Vs. 31. The cross is also foreshadowed by Simeon’s warning to Mary that “a sword shall pierce through your heart also.” Vs. 35.
The other main actor in this drama is Anna, daughter of Phanuel of the tribe of Asher. “Anna” is the Greek equivalent of “Hannah,” the mother of Samuel. It appears that from the death of her husband early in their marriage, Anna has been living a life of devotion to prayer and religious observance. The suggestion that she might have belonged to a religious community of widows providing service to the temple is interesting, but lacking in evidential support of any kind. Like Simeon, she was looking for “the redemption of Jerusalem.” Vs. 38. Whereas Simeon appears to have been speaking principally to Mary, Anna speaks of the child Jesus to all who, like her, anticipate the salvation of Israel.
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 would obstruct your mercy, that willingly we may bear your redeeming love to all the world, for you live and reign with the Father and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.
Mary’s pregnancy complicates the Christian faith. It would be much simpler to explain ourselves if only we could say that God adopted Jesus in view of his exemplary faith; or that Jesus was simply a visible manifestation of the invisible God and not a separate individual person; or that Jesus is a human being in whom the consciousness of God’s will reached its highest level. Voices within the church have put forth these very teachings in the past. They continue to linger in some quarters today. That isn’t surprising. Trying to explain how God brings about a pregnancy that produces a fully human person who is God’s Son and also God’s self stretches human capacity for reasoning to the breaking point. Yet the church has consistently returned to its seemingly untenable confession that Jesus is the Father’s only begotten Son, incarnate by the Holy Spirit of the virgin Mary, thereby rejecting all of the more conceptually palatable understandings of Jesus.
The doctrine of the Incarnation is a messy affair. So are pregnancies generally. Even so-called “planned pregnancies” are disruptive, bringing about fundamental changes in relationships, lifestyles and expectations. No one can foresee the consequences of a new life being inserted into a family, a community or the world. I doubt Mary had a clue about what she was letting herself in for when she replied to the angel Gabriel, “Let it be to me according to your word.” Neither did my wife and me when we got married with the expectation of having children. We learned, as did Mary, that having a baby is a messy and complicated business. We learned that nothing turns out the way you expect. We began with the notion that it was our job to shape our children as they grew and discovered that they wound up shaping us. And ours were planned pregnancies-more or less.
Mary’s was an unplanned pregnancy-at least from her perspective. Yet from God’s perspective, there is no such thing as an unplanned pregnancy. That is the essence of the gospel. God infuses life into places that are not looking for it, don’t want it and frequently reject it. God appears in the darkest corners where he is unlooked for, unwanted and frequently rejected. Through the miracle of the Incarnation, the life of God is inextricably woven into the fabric of human existence to such an extent that we cannot speak of God other than as the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. We cannot speak of the Holy Spirit other than that Spirit which proceeds from the Father and the Son.
Our lives would be lot less complicated if God did not insist on entering into them so fully and completely. Mary understood that opening herself to the Spirit of God was likely to turn her orderly existence upside down. She also understood that her orderly existence could not compare with the new heaven and the new earth soon to be implanted in her womb. So Mary said yes to God; yes to messiness; yes to loss of control and yes to a new tomorrow. You might quite properly call Advent an invitation to join Mary in saying “yes to the mess.”
Israel was ever ambivalent about the institution of monarchy. The Hebrew Scriptures at times extol the monarchy as God’s instrument of justice and peace. As God’s representative, the king “delivers the needy when he calls, the poor and him who has no helper. He has pity on the weak and the needy, and saves the lives of the needy.” Psalm 72:12-13. The prophets took a more critical view of kingship in Israel. Ezekiel criticize the kings of Israel and Judah for looking after their own interests and allowing the “sheep” to be scattered and lost. Ezekiel 34:1-10. So, too, Jeremiah railed against these “shepherds” of Israel whose self-serving ways brought about the destruction of the flock. Jeremiah 23:1-4.
These two divergent views of the monarchy in Israel are woven together throughout the narratives of I & II Samuel. The pro-monarchy view comes to us from an early source probably compiled during the reign of Solomon, David’s son. This writer regards the establishment of kingship in Israel as divinely ordained for Israel’s salvation. Anyone who lived to see the rise of the Israelite empire from a loose confederacy of divided tribes oppressed by the militarily superior Philistines could not fail to be impressed by David, the architect of this great achievement. For the first time ever Israel lived within secure borders. Trade and commerce flourished under the protection of the new central government. Israel was beginning to be recognized as a power to be reckoned with among the other nations. Under these circumstances, it is not surprising that the monarchy was seen as an instrument of God’s blessing and salvation.
The later source was likely composed during the latter days of the Judean monarchy between 750 B.C.E. and 650 B.C.E. This author views Samuel as the true and greatest ruler of Israel. S/He views the monarchy as a sinful rejection of God’s rule over Israel. By this time, Israel had experienced civil war and the succession of ten of its twelve tribes from the house of David. Injustice, corruption and idolatry turned out to be the price of commercial success and military power under monarchy. The prophets gave voice to God’s displeasure with Israel’s kings and to the cries of those crushed under their oppressive yolk. Samuel’s warnings against the consequences of monarchy had come true with a vengeance. I Samuel 8:10-18. Nevertheless, this subsequent writer still views David in a positive light in spite of his having been elected to a disfavored institution.
Most scholars agree that II Samuel 7:1-29 is a late theological commentary inserted into the early source intended to explain why David was not chosen to build the temple in Jerusalem. That purpose is not readily discernable from our reading because verses 12-15 have been omitted. These verses make clear that God has chosen David’s heir to build the temple. I believe that this section also serves to clarify the nature of the Davidic covenant as subordinate to God’s covenant with all Israel at Sinai. Though God’s promise to preserve faithfully the line of David is repeated here, the prophet Nathan warns that iniquity on the part of David’s descendants will meet with punishment. Vss. 14-15.
The key to this interchange between the word of the Lord, delivered through Nathan, and David is found in the various meanings of the Hebrew word for “house.” Initially, David intends to build a “house” for the Ark of the Covenant. So used, the term means “shrine” or “temple.” God responds by promising to build David a “house,” clearly meaning a dynasty. If you were to read on to verses 18-20, you would discover that the same term is used again to describe family status, i.e., “Who am I, Lord God, and what is my house that thou hast brought me thus far?” Vs. 18. This is clearly a reference to the former insignificance of the family of Jesse and David’s status as the youngest of Jesse’s sons. The different shades of meaning for this one word serve to illuminate the depth and complexity of the Davidic covenant and the significance of the temple. Both are subordinate to the Sinai covenant and flow from the faithfulness of God to Israel expressed in that covenant. The temple is not to be a shrine to the Ark, but the place where God’s name dwells. Vs. 13. Though established “forever,” the dynasty of David is answerable to Torah and subject to God’s punishment for violating it. Vss 13-14.
This scripture invites us to contemplate our response to expectations that fail to materialize. It is evident that the line of David did in fact come to an end following the Babylonian conquest of 587 B.C.E. Either God’s promise failed or its fulfilment lies beyond the scope of the Judean monarchy. Second Isaiah deals with this problem by suggesting that God’s “steadfast, sure love for David” now embraces all Israel rather than any one individual descendent of David. Isaiah 55:3-5. Later Judaism saw in the Davidic covenant the promise of a messianic deliverer. This hope, in all of its many permutations, was very much alive in Jesus’ day. Jesus himself appears to have invited his hearers to consider in what sense the promised messiah could be considered “the son of David.” See Mark 12:35-40; Matthew 22:41-46; Luke 20:41-44. So also, both Judaism as a whole and the early church struggled with the meaning of the temple’s destruction by Rome in 70 C.E. As I have often said before, I believe the Letter to the Hebrews is in large part a response to this crisis.
Promise/fulfilment is a common theme throughout the Advent season. Now as throughout history, the people of God are called upon to discern how the ancient promises are working themselves out in our midst. For Christians, the challenge is to discover the layers of meaning and the richness given to the gospel narratives by the Hebrew Scriptures out of which they grew. Care must be taken, however, to respect the witness to these scriptures given by the Jewish people in all ages. There is no place for a theology of supersessionism in which Christianity is seen to “replace” or “supersede” Judaism. As Paul points out in the latter half of his Letter to the Romans, both Israel and the church play a critical role in God’s redemptive purpose for the world.
Although it focuses on the rise of the Davidic monarchy as God’s saving act, the psalm begins with an acknowledgement that the true sovereign of all the earth is God. Vss. 1-2. God makes a “covenant” with David. Vs. 3. A covenant is more than a mere contract. In the ancient near east, covenants were usually made between kings-and generally not between equals. It was common for a dominant king to enter into a covenant with the king of a subservient nation. Under the terms of the covenant, the stronger king would promise to provide military protection from common enemies (and a promise that he himself would not attack!). In return, the weaker king would pay tribute and promise undivided allegiance to the stronger king. The weaker king would often give his daughters in marriage to the stronger. (The fact that one’s daughter is at the mercy of a foreign king would naturally make one think twice about commencing hostilities!).
In the covenant with David, God is the dominant partner. Yet, oddly enough, God promises both protection and eternal faithfulness. God’s love for and support of David is not contingent on David’s past accomplishments or on his promise to be loyal to the Lord. It is a one way covenant in which all of the promises flow from God to David and his line.
Although the image of parenthood is used (vs. 26), David is every inch a human being and there is no suggestion that his being anointed king confers divinity on him. This is one feature setting the Israelite concept of kingship apart from Canaanite ideas. There is no suggestion in this psalm that David is chosen on the basis of merit. Nothing is said about David’s character or his good deeds that might have led God to select him as a covenant partner and king over Israel. We hear plenty, though, about the character of God and God’s determination to stand by the promises made to David. Vss. 20-24. Once again, being king does not set one above the commandments of God. If anything, the king has a greater responsibility to observe justice and righteousness. He stands in God’s place as the representative of God. As such, his failures are not merely his own. They have an impact on the nation for which he is responsible. As Jesus was wont to say, “To whom much is given, much is expected.” Luke 12:48.
If you were to read the Psalm 89 in its entirety (which I always recommend) you would discover that the psalm’s tone changes abruptly from a mood of praise to bitter lament at verse 38. Obviously, the situation in which the king now finds himself does not evidence the protection and success promised to the line of David in the “vision” discussed in the earlier part. Vss. 19-26. We do not know the precise historical setting of this psalm. Because the prayer is by or for a king currently (though tenuously) on the throne, it is safe to assume that it was written before the Davidic dynasty came to an end in 587 B.C.E. with the second Babylonian invasion. The prayer might reflect the desperate situation in which David found himself during the rebellion of his son, Absalom. Or it might reflect the invasion by Egypt during the reign of Solomon’s son, Rehoboam. It could have been composed after the tragic death of the young King Josiah at the hands of Pharaoh Neco or the siege of Jerusalem under Zedekiah. Whatever the historical setting, it must have been a very traumatic and faith shaking experience for Israel to see the Lord’s anointed, the heir of David, God’s covenant partner so thoroughly defeated. What could this mean? Had God abandoned the covenant? Had the Lord forgotten all the promises made to David? Where was God’s salvation in this time of need?
The mood of the disciples must have been very similar when they saw their Lord nailed to the tree and crying out, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” Yet just when it seemed that God could not be further away from them, God had drawn near in the most profound way possible. Jesus’ death and resurrection bring to crescendo Israel’s stubborn belief that, however dark the hour, God is at work in history. It is often when we find ourselves with the sea in front of us and a hostile army at our heels-or at the tomb where our last, best hope seems dead and buried-that God works salvation.
This is the conclusion to Paul’s Letter to the Romans in which he has gone to great lengths explaining in some detail how “the revelation of the mystery which was kept secret for long ages but is now disclosed and through the prophetic writings is made known to all nations, according to the command of the eternal God, to bring about the obedience of faith…” vss. 25-26. This snippet plays nicely into the prophecy/fulfillment theme of Advent, but I cannot imagine how one could preach on it without reaching back into the body of Romans and reconstructing Paul’s argument. Such a project is far too big for any one sermon and best saved for periods in the church year where consecutive readings from the Letter to the Romans are featured in the lectionary. This last summer would have been a good time for that.
Luke’s telling of the nativity narrative is strikingly different from that of Matthew in several respects. Whereas in Matthew Joseph is the recipient of angelic revelation, in Luke he is altogether absent from the scene until the trip to Bethlehem. In Matthew’s gospel, the angel’s messages come through dreams. Luke has the angel Gabriel addressing Zachariah and Mary directly. Derived from the Hebrew words “Gavar” meaning “strong man” and “el,” a word for God, the name Gabriel is best translated “God has shown himself mighty.” Brueggemann, Walter, “Gabriel,” The Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, Vol. 2 (c. 1962 by Abington Press) p. 332. Gabriel first appears in Daniel explaining to the prophet a vision of the end that he has just seen. Daniel 8:15-17. See also Daniel 9:21. Though not otherwise mentioned in the canonical Hebrew Scriptures, Gabriel is frequently portrayed as God’s agent of revelation, punishment and salvation throughout later Jewish writings such as the Books of Enoch. It is important to understand that in Hebraic thought, God is fully present in the person of God’s messenger. Ibid, p. 333.
The impact of Gabriel’s message is very much muted by the later church’s fixation on the “immaculate conception” and our 19th Century prejudice against that which does not fit our empirical world view. Few people in the 1st Century B.C.E. doubted that God (or a god) could bring about a pregnancy miraculously. The remarkable thing here is that Gabriel, God’s chief messenger, should be sent 1) to a woman; 2) to an insignificant town in Galilee; 3) to announce that God’s messiah and David’s heir was to be born to this woman of no particular standing. Luke goes out of his way to let us know that he is well aware of contemporary events and the way in which history appears to be unfolding through the likes of Herod the Great and Caesar Augustus. Yet he would have us know that the true history, the history that matters, the history God is making will unfold not in Jerusalem or Rome, but in the small hamlet of Nazareth. The hope of Israel and the whole world will be born to a homeless couple in a drafty animal shelter. That is the miracle at which Luke would have us marvel.
What, then, shall we say of the “virgin birth”? Though not as pronounced as in Matthew’s gospel, one point seems to be that Jesus’ conception and birth is at the initiation of God and independent from requirements of lineage, status and blood. Something new and different is taking place with the birth of Jesus. How does God initiate that birth? Luke tells Mary, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be called holy, the Son of God.” Vs. 35. Perhaps the church would have been wise simply to leave it there. Who can explain the workings of the Holy Spirit? We know that the Spirit can work through events that appear to unfold naturally and in accord with what we understand about the processes of nature. Yet the Spirit also introduces novelty that strains our credibility, exceeds our expectations and challenges our imaginative abilities. Who can say how the Spirit worked in this instance? Does it really matter?
It may not have mattered to the first readers of Luke’s gospel, but it became an important question for the church in later years as she struggled to make the gospel intelligible to Mediterranean culture while remaining faithful to her biblical roots. Without rehashing the first six centuries of the church’s history, it is fair to say that the confession of Jesus as the Son of God born of the virgin Mary was part and parcel of the church’s insistence that Jesus was no less human than he was divine; that God as creator took naturally to human flesh created in God’s image; that the Incarnate Word has plumbed the depths of all that it is to be human. At the end of the day, the Incarnation is a mystery that can be contemplated, worshiped and believed, but never fully understood. We cannot insist on any particular metaphysical understanding of virginal conception because this says more than the biblical witness tells us. Neither can we dogmatically maintain that the birth of Jesus must have occurred under purely “natural” circumstances as we think we understand them. Assertion of either position says both too much and too little.
Gabriel’s assurance that “with God nothing will be impossible” and Mary’s response, “let it be to me according to your word” fitly summarize the import of this lesson. To be fully open to God requires belief in God’s willingness and ability to do all things-even the seemingly impossible. Advent beckons us to just such radical openness. It challenges us to suspend our judgments about who we think God is, who our neighbor really is and what are the possibilities for the future, both ours and the world’s. During this holy season we are challenged to expect the impossible!
THIRD SUNDAY OF ADVENT
PRAYER OF THE DAY: Stir up the wills of your faithful people, Lord God, and open our ears to the words of your prophets, that, anointed by your Spirit, we may testify to your light; through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.
Our gospel reading for this Sunday tells us a lot more about who John the Baptist isn’t than who he is. You can sense the frustration in the voices of those sent from Homeland Security Headquarters in Jerusalem to investigate him. “If you are not the Messiah or Elijah or the great prophet, who the hell are you? Why are you baptizing? We need answers!” Perhaps John was a little frustrated himself. It isn’t much fun answering questions that are designed to pigeon-hole you, put a label on you and box you in. I have been through that before. “Are you pro-life or pro-choice?” “Do you believe the Bible is literally true?” “Are you in favor of the death penalty?” “Where do you stand on gun control?” More often than not, the folks who ask me these questions are not particularly interested in any opinions I might have about these issues or the reasons for any such opinions. The objective is usually to determine whether I am with them, whether I am on their side, whether I am one of their people.
So how do I respond? I would like say that I am pro-life for the unborn children, for the born children fleeing into our country, for the victims of military action and for the prisoner sitting on death row. I would like to say that truth is more than a bundle of propositions. Truth is a person and the Bible is true because it points us to the one who is the Way, the Truth and the Life. I would like to say that I am in favor of self-control which, if practiced, would make the whole issue of gun control mute. I would like to say that I am a baptized child of God which defines who I am more than any opinion I may have about any particular issue; that I am in the process of being transformed into the image of Christ and so, of course, my views on just about everything are always changing. In today’s polarized climate, that is called “flip flopping.” The Bible calls it repentance.
But most people who press these “where do you stand” kind of questions have little patience for nuance. Like the emissaries from Jerusalem sent to John, they want their questions answered on their terms. So the conversation ends with both of us coming away frustrated. Neither of us is getting what we want. They don’t get their answers and I don’t get to explain myself.
Perhaps the problem is that I am too concerned with making myself understood. John doesn’t have that problem. “Me? I’m just a voice,” says John. “The one you should be focused on is coming after me. Save your questions for him.” You see, at the end of the day, it doesn’t matter what I think. All that matters is Jesus. My job as a disciple of Jesus is to point to him. When I focus on explaining myself, I just get in the way.
On this third Sunday of Advent our focus is on the prophetic testimony of Isaiah pointing us to God’s redemptive purpose for the world and the testimony of John the Baptist to the One through whom that purpose comes to fruition. Saint Paul warns us to be open to the Holy Spirit and the voice of prophetic testimony bearing witness to Jesus. Only so can we be shaped into the kind of people whose words and lives point beyond ourselves to the One who died, who was raised and who will come again.
As I have noted previously, the fifty sixth chapter of the Book of Isaiah opens into what scholars agree is a third collection of prophetic oracles separate from the prophet Isaiah of the 8th Century B.C.E. (Isaiah 1-39) and Second Isaiah (Isaiah 40-55) who prophesied toward the end of the Babylonian Exile. These prophesies, comprising what is commonly called “Third Isaiah” (Isaiah 56-66), come from a period beginning shortly after the return of the exiled Jews from Babylon in 539 B.C.E., but before the rebuilding of the temple in about 515 B.C.E.
Our lesson has affinities with the “servant songs” of Second Isaiah, particularly Isaiah 50:4-11. (For more info on the “servant songs,” see my post of Sunday, April 13, 2014.) These words constitute the opening declaration of a section Professor Claus Westermaan calls “the nucleus” of chapters 56-66, the third part of the Book of the Prophet Isaiah. Westermann, Claus, Isaiah 40-66, The Old Testament Library (c. 1969 by SCM Press Ltd.) p. 352. The prophet announces that s/he has been anointed to “bring good tidings to the afflicted.” Vs. 1. The term afflicted might also be translated “poor.” However one chooses to translate the term, it obviously applies to the Jews who took up Second Isaiah’s challenge to return to their homeland and rebuild the ruined city of Jerusalem. If these pilgrims were expecting this task to be an easy one, they were sorely disappointed. Upon their homecoming, they faced grinding poverty, hostility from their Samaritan and Arab neighbors and political opposition from within the Persian Empire that now dominated the Middle East. Enthusiasm for rebuilding Jerusalem and the temple waned. For some time after the arrival of the first returning exiles it appeared as though the whole project would be abandoned.
The prophet we commonly identify as “Third Isaiah” understood his calling as a continuation of his predecessor’s mission. Whereas Second Isaiah’s preaching inspired the Jews to return to their homeland, Third Isaiah encouraged them to complete the task of rebuilding it. To that end, the prophet is endowed with the Spirit of God. Vs. 1. Throughout the Hebrew Scriptures, the Spirit of the Lord is recognized as that power of God enabling human beings to do extraordinary things. See, e.g. Judges 3:10; Judges 11:29; and II Chronicles 20:14. So also, the word of God proclaimed by the prophet is more than just verbiage. The Word is the agency by which God acts and in some sense God’s self. See, e.g., Isaiah 55:10-11. By the enabling power of God’s Spirit, the prophet is sent forth to unleash the freeing power of the word that heals, liberates and releases. Vs. 1.
“The day of vengeance of our God.” Vs. 2. Though not literally incorrect, the use of the word “vengeance” is not the best choice for the Hebrew meaning. The word might better be rendered “rescue” or “restore” as the notes to the New Oxford Annotated Bible point out. The prophet maintains that it is God’s intent to erase the hierarchical power structures under which God’s people are “afflicted” and “poor.” This restorative intent is evident from the following declarations of “comfort” to all who mourn, “gladness instead of mourning,” “praise instead of a faint spirit,” rebuilding for the “ancient ruins” and repair for “devastations of many generations.” Vss. 2-5.
The makers of the lectionary have omitted verses 5-7, no doubt out of squeamishness. Here are the offensive words:
Strangers shall stand and feed your flocks,
foreigners shall till your land and dress your vines;
6 but you shall be called priests of the Lord,
you shall be named ministers of our God; you shall enjoy the wealth of the nations,
and in their riches you shall glory.
7 Because their* shame was double,
and dishonor was proclaimed as their lot,
therefore they shall possess a double portion;
everlasting joy shall be theirs.
Only God and the lectionary people themselves know what was in their peevish little minds when they took their scalpels to this text. I suspect that this lacuna was created out of respect for the sensitivities of their mainline protestant, progressive, slightly left of center, ever white and ever polite constituency. Nothing spoils the progressive mood like making foreigners into laborers in the vineyards of the chosen people. That hardly squares with our Enlightenment egalitarian ethics. But then, our Enlightenment egalitarian ethics don’t square with the Scriptures either. The Scriptures speak not of equality, but justice. As Jesus frequently noted, “the last shall be first and the first shall be last.” Matthew 19:30; Matthew 20:16; Mark 10:31. He was speaking, of course, of life under the reign of God. Even those who are last in the kingdom are still within the kingdom. That should be enough. If being the last in the kingdom is a problem for you, it’s a sure indication that you don’t yet understand the kingdom and are not yet ready for it. Why should we balk at being servants to the people of God? Why should we object to taking our place among the “least”? Isn’t that the way to true greatness in kingdom terms?
Another problem in our reading of these verses arises from our cultural disdain for labor generally and manual labor in particular. Only recently an article in the Wall Street Journal warned workers in the fast food industry that, if they continued lobby for a living wage, they would be replaced by machines. Late stage capitalism’s undervaluation of such work and its contempt for those who perform it is alien to biblical thought. Caring for livestock, plowing and planting are all essential to human wellbeing and proper care for the land. It is precisely the sort of work for which human beings were created. That the nations should share their wealth and contribute their labor to the restoration of Israel does not amount to exploitation anymore than did support of the Levitical priesthood by means of the tithe in ancient Israel. Just as God blessed Israel through the ministry of the Levites, so God now blesses the nations of the world through a restored Israel.
Finally, Israel’s restoration does not come about through conquest and subjugation of the nations. Rather, God’s restoration of Israel draws all the nations to the worship of God. “And all nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your rising.” Isaiah 60:3. Within the larger canonical context, Israel herself is seen as a “suffering servant” whose faithfulness unto death is a light to the nations. It is through her witness that the nations will learn how service to the God who is God, rather than striving for nationalistic dominance, leads to blessing and peace. Thus, the nations’ service to Israel does not come about through conquest and is not carried out in a hierarchical context. It is instead the faithful response of a world that finally recognizes its Creator. The intent is summed up in verse 11: “For as the earth brings forth its shoots, and as a garden causes what is sown in it to spring up, so the Lord God will cause righteousness and praise to spring forth before all the nations.” (I owe this last insight to Rev. Roy Riley, Pastor and former Bishop of the New Jersey Synod-ELCA).
Verse 10 marks a transition. Whereas the speaker in the first nine verses is the God of Israel, the prophet himself/herself begins speaking in verse 10. These last two verses of the chapter constitute a brief psalm of praise in which the prophet rejoices in the privilege of his/her calling and expresses confidence in God’s willingness and ability to bring about his redemptive purpose for all humanity. All in all, this passage delivers a powerful declaration of hope altogether fitting for the season of Advent.
This psalm is labeled a “Song of Ascents.” It shares this title with a larger group of fourteen other psalms. (Psalms 120-134). The meaning of the title has not been established beyond doubt. It is thought by a number of scholars to mean that this group of songs was composed for use in the procession of pilgrims coming to Jerusalem for high festivals. Other scholars cast doubt on this hypothesis, pointing out that most of these psalms appear to have been composed for cultic purposes unrelated to the Zion tradition.
“When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion…” Vs. 1. The reference may be to a revival experienced by Judah under the long and prosperous reign of King Uzziah (783 B.C.E. to 742 B.C.E.). It might also refer to the reign of King Josiah (640 B.C.E. to 609 B.C.E.) who, during a power vacuum resulting from the decline of the Assyrian Empire, was able to re-conquer all of the lands and territories belonging not only to Judah, but also to the former Kingdom of Israel to the north. The Psalmist may also be alluding to the decree of Cyrus the Great in 538 B.C.E. allowing the Jews exiled in Babylon to return to their homeland and rebuild the temple. In any event, the psalmist is reflecting on a significant act of God’s salvation experienced at some point in Israel’s history. Obviously, this saving event is in the past. Verses 4-6 make it clear that Israel’s present situation is bleak and in need of restoration.
“…we were like those who dream. Then our mouth was filled with laughter, and our tongue with shouts of joy…” Vss. 1-2. Extremely good news does seem to have a dream like quality about it. So also one can become light headed from laughter. Perhaps that is what the psalmist had in mind. Of course, dreams frequently have a prophetic dimension the in the scriptures, i.e. Joseph (both the patriarch of Genesis and the husband of Mary in Matthew’s gospel). The Hebrew word pronounced “goyim” is used for “the nations” in verse 2. Though the nations were considered outside of God’s covenant with Israel, what God accomplished for Israel was intended not merely for Israel’s own benefit, but as a testimony to the nations of God’s goodness and power.
“Negeb,” in verse 4 means literally “a dry land.” The reference is to a triangle of 12,500 square kilometers in the southern area of Palestine. It has numerous riverbeds that are dry for most of the year but rush with water during the seasonal rains. During these brief periods, the beds become lush with vegetation. The psalm concludes with a prayer that the life-giving streams of God’s Spirit will revive Israel again just as the seasonal rains revive the Negeb. God’s saving acts in the past strengthen Israel’s resolve to look toward the future in hope, even as she toils now in what seems to be fruitless labor.
This Psalm inspired the popular American Spiritual, Bringing in the Sheaves, lyrics and music of which is in the public domain:
Sowing in the morning, sowing seeds of kindness,
Sowing in the noontide and the dewy eve;
Waiting for the harvest, and the time of reaping,
We shall come rejoicing, bringing in the sheaves.
Bringing in the sheaves, bringing in the sheaves,
We shall come rejoicing, bringing in the sheaves,
Bringing in the sheaves, bringing in the sheaves,
We shall come rejoicing, bringing in the sheaves.
Sowing in the sunshine, sowing in the shadows,
Fearing neither clouds nor winter’s chilling breeze;
By and by the harvest, and the labor ended,
We shall come rejoicing, bringing in the sheaves.
Going forth with weeping, sowing for the Master,
Though the loss sustained our spirit often grieves;
When our weeping’s over, He will bid us welcome,
We shall come rejoicing, bringing in the sheaves.
“Rejoice always, pray constantly, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.” Vs. 16-18. This condensed word of exhortation is worth its weight in gold. It sounds hopelessly trite to say that we would all be a good deal happier if we rejoiced instead of crabbing; prayed instead of worrying and gave thanks instead of complaining. Like most biblical exhortations, it is trite apart from faith in Jesus Christ. Placed into the context of the entire first letter to the Thessalonians however, these words are rich with meaning. Because Jesus conquered death, we can rejoice even when death encroaches upon our lives. Because Jesus is always present in our midst, all times are right for prayer. Because we know that the most precious possession we have, the kingdom of heaven, can never be taken from us, we always have much for which to be thankful. It is God’s will that we be joyful, prayerful and thankful. God enables us so to live by giving us good reason for joy, prayer and thankfulness.
Paul warns the Thessalonian church not to “quench the Spirit” or “despise prophecy.” Vss. 19-20. To fully appreciate what Paul is saying here we need to look beyond this letter to his first letter to the Corinthian church. There Paul speaks of the Spirit as the One that calls each individual member into a single Body. Members of the Body never act on their own behalf to further their own selfish interests. They exercise their unique gifts to build up and strengthen the Body. See I Corinthians 12. Prophesy is one such gift to be exercised to that end.
Why would anyone despise prophesy? You only need to read a little of it from the Hebrew Scriptures to understand why prophesy is sometimes met with hostility. Part of a prophet’s job is to tell the community things it does not want to hear. Churches don’t like to be told that they are unwelcoming, member oriented and harbor attitudes of racial prejudice. Churches don’t like being told they need to change. Churches sometimes wish that the prophets among them would just shut up already. But the health of a church depends on vigorous prophetic critique to keep it honest and focused on what matters.
Of course, prophesy is designed to build up the Body of Christ. Even when it seems to anger, tear down and divide, its ultimate goal is the health of the Body. Thus, prophesy is more than simply an angry rant. Sadly, too much of what passes for prophetic preaching these days amounts to little more than “Bad Dog Sermons.” That is a phrase coined by M. Craig Barnes in a recent article in the Christian Century. He writes: “Most of the people who come to church these days already have a pretty clear sense of their ethical and moral responsibilities. We’re well trained and know what we ought to do. There is little gospel in telling us we’re not doing enough. But that’s the message the church keeps giving.” I must confess that I am not quite as convinced as Barnes that people who come to church always have a clear sense of ethics or morals. Very often it is our very morality that messes us up. Still, simply beating people over the head with their shortcomings does little to motivate and transform. For that we need the good news of Jesus Christ.
Paul is a model of prophetic preaching. He could be painfully blunt in pointing out the failures of his churches. Yet he could also say of his most troublesome and dysfunctional congregation, “Now you are the Body of Christ.” I Corinthians 12:27. He does not say, “You should be the Body of Christ,” or “if you ever get your act together, someday you might be the Body of Christ.” Paul assures his churches that they are in fact Christ’s Body, the church for which Jesus died and the church through which he now lives. Then he goes on to encourage his churches to become what they already are!
“The material about John [the Baptist] in each Gospel is best understood as each evangelist’s attempt to make clear to his readers this important distinction between the Baptist and Jesus Christ.” Marsh, John, Saint John, The Pelican New Testament Commentaries (c. 1968 John Marsh pub. by Penguin Books, Ltd.) p. 116. At least that is the take of one commentator. While it probably is the case that John’s disciples continued as a community after his execution by Herod Antipas and that this community’s existence made it necessary for the church to address John’s role in the drama of Israel’s redemption, I doubt that this was the only or even the primary purpose for including his ministry in the gospel narrative. In all of the gospels, and most explicitly in John’s gospel, the Baptist serves a critical literary and theological purpose. John the Baptist grounds the ministry of Jesus in the Hebrew scriptural narrative while at the same time showcasing its radical uniqueness. What the story of the transfiguration accomplishes for the synoptic gospels, John’s narrative concerning the Baptist’s ministry does for his own gospel. It testifies to the continuity of Jesus’ mission and ministry with the law and the prophets while distinguishing his person from both Moses and the prophets.
As noted by commentator Raymond Brown, the Sadducean rulers in Jerusalem would not likely have sent Pharisees to represent them. Their appearance here reflects the time of this gospel’s composition following the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem and the reconstitution of Judaism thereafter. Brown, Raymond E., The Gospel According to John I-XII, The Anchor Bible, vol. 29 (c. 1966 by Doubleday) p. 44. By this point, the Pharisaic tradition had come to define Judaism as a whole and was the chief antagonist for John’s church. Ibid. Not surprisingly, then, the role of the Pharisees all but eclipses that of the chief priests who were likely the principle authors of Jesus’ arrest and conviction.
That said, it would not have been unusual for the religious authorities in Jerusalem to investigate the activity of John the Baptist. Vs. 24. Anyone capable of drawing a crowd of admirers within the restive provinces of Judah and Galilee would naturally be of concern to the ruling elites eager to maintain the status quo. It would also be natural to inquire whether John was claiming to be a messianic figure or even a lesser apocalyptic figure such as the returning Elijah foretold in Malachi 4:5-6 or the prophet promised by Moses in Deuteronomy 18:15. Vss. 20-21. But John’s gospel has a specific theological point to make here. As the representative of the law and the prophets, the Baptist must disclaim every redemptive role to be fulfilled by Jesus. Thus, he testifies “I am not” the Messiah. “I am not” Elijah. “I am not” the prophet. These disclaimers must be viewed against the multiple instances in which Jesus will declare “I am.” See e.g., “I who speak to you am he [messiah].” John 4:26 (To the woman at the well); “I am the bread of life” John 6:35; “I am the living bread which came down from heaven” John 8:12; “Truly I say to you, before Abraham was, I am” John 8:58; “I am the door of the sheep” John 10:9; “I am the good shepherd” John 10:14; “I am the resurrection and the life” John 11:25; “You call me teacher and lord; and you are right, for so I am” John 13:13; “I am the way, the truth and the life; no one comes to the Father, but by me” John 14:6; “I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinedresser” John 15:1; “I am he.” John 18:5 (To the temple police at his arrest).
When it comes to who John the Baptist is, John will only say that he is “a voice.” “Essentially, John does nothing [in the gospel] but testify to Jesus.” Collins, Raymond F., “From John to the Beloved Disciple,” Interpretation Vol. 49, no. 4 October 1995, p.362. “[I]n effect, his is the voice not only of God but also of the implied author.” Ibid. John cannot speak positively until Jesus arrives on the scene. Only then does John have something to which he can point and say, “Behold!” John 1:29.
Karl Barth once said that the church is only the impact crater left by Jesus. I think that says too little. The Apostle Paul is emphatic in his insistence that the church is the Body of Christ, and for him that is no mere metaphor. It is nevertheless true that the church is called to be fully transparent so that the world sees Jesus in it. We faithfully discharge our witness solely to the extent that we have been shaped by the impact Jesus has made upon us. To the degree that we call attention to ourselves, our works and our projects we get in our own way. So Barth is correct in one sense. Without Jesus, we are just an empty hole in the ground. Our existence derives from our testimony to the One who is to come.
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 strengthen us to serve you with purified lives; through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.
“Prepare the way of the Lord,” say both the prophet in Isaiah and John the Baptist. How is that even possible? Last week Jesus made it clear to us that we cannot know the “when” and the “how” of his appearing. We can only wait for it. Yet as the apostle reminds us in our reading from the Second Letter of St. Peter, waiting is not a passive activity. Though we don’t know the when and the how, we know the “what,” and the “what” is Jesus. Because Jesus is present to us even now in his resurrected body, the community called “church,” the kingdom is present now also. The kingdom is not out in the distant future, but even now breaking into our present existence. The church is that “way of the Lord” about which the gospel speaks.
I believe that we disciples of Jesus have a lot of leveling off and clearing away to do in order for the church to be the “highway of our God.” My own congregation has been struggling simply to clear our building of obstacles for persons with difficulty walking. Our construction of a ramp and plans for remodeling our sanctuary and fellowship space to make them accessible to all is coming at a significant expense. As you might expect, it is difficult to agree on a plan that meets with everyone’s approval and respects everyone’s concerns about preserving the sanctity of what we have come to regard as “holy space.”
And that is the easy part. More difficult to clear away are the invisible obstacles. These are the attitudes and behaviors we have developed that keep people away from us, particularly younger people. According to a recent study done by the Barna Group, many young people view the church as overprotective of its traditions, practices and the opinions of its members. They seek a faith that connects with their daily lives, but very often the issues that affect and concern young people most are taboo for traditional church goers. Efforts to engage issues involving sexuality, climate change, income disparity and racial equality are often “too hot” for a community that prefers quiet, polite and undisturbed fellowship to serious engagement with life as young people experience it.
Contrary to popular perceptions, young people are not “turned off” with religion or hostile toward God. In fact, one reason young people leave the church is that there is too little God. One-third of the folks interviewed by Barna said “church is boring” (31%). One-quarter of these young adults said that “faith is not relevant to my career or interests” (24%) or that “the Bible is not taught clearly or often enough” (23%). Sadly, one-fifth of these young adults who attended a church as a teenager said that “God seems missing from my experience of church” (20%). Unfortunately, much of what has to be cleared away from the highway of our God is of our own making. We have got too much ritual, too many activities and too little Jesus. Our programing has gotten in the way of our proclaiming a biblical message engaging and relevant to the lives of young people!
Another problem appears to be that the church is perceived as being hostile toward science. Once again, Barna found that “the most common of the perceptions in this arena is ‘Christians are too confident they know all the answers’ (35%). Three out of ten young adults with a Christian background feel that ‘churches are out of step with the scientific world we live in’ (29%). Another one-quarter embrace the perception that “Christianity is anti-science” (25%). And nearly the same proportion (23%) said they have ‘been turned off by the creation-versus-evolution debate.’” While I believe that the creation/evolution battle has, for the most part, been put to rest in my own Lutheran denomination, it is very much alive and well elsewhere in the church. Moreover, a disproportionate number of Christians still cling to long discarded unscientific notions about climate change, homosexuality, contraception and medical treatment generally for ideological reasons. That contributes to the caricature of people of faith as ignorant, backwards and uneducated.
Finally, and most distressingly, young people find churches unfriendly. I am not talking about obvious things, like greeting visitors, introducing them around and inviting them down to the coffee hour. Most churches do all of that. The unfriendliness usually sets in after these newcomers decide to give the church a try and start getting involved. I could have retired years ago if I had a dollar for every time I have heard a long time member crush the tentative suggestion of a new comer with remarks like, “Well, in this church we have always done…” “It has always been our practice…” “That’s not what we do here…” In short, we would love to have new members-as long as they learn to do things our way, think as we do and act in ways we believe are appropriate for church. Young people have no interest in becoming part of a community where their questions and ideas are not welcome. They have no desire to become part of a community where they have no influence and where their voice is not heard. Come to think of it, this old coot wouldn’t like that either!
I can say that I have heard these same complaints from many of the young people I have spoken with over the last several years. We in the church might feel that these criticisms are unfair and not altogether true. That may be so. Like all generalizations, the Barna findings cannot be applied across the board in every respect for all churches. Furthermore, I don’t believe most churches intend to be judgmental, dismissive or unwelcoming. But regardless of whether the above criticisms of the church are fair and notwithstanding our good intentions, the fact remains that young people looking at the church do not see Jesus. That is a huge problem that we cannot afford to ignore. Like it or not, ours is the burden of making straight the way of the Lord. So how do we go about doing that?
At this point, it is tempting to suggest all kinds of reforms, strategies and programs designed to make our churches more open to younger people. There is nothing necessarily wrong with that, but if that is our first step, it is doomed to failure. What we need first and foremost is a change of heart. As long as we continue to view the younger generation as the means for perpetuating our institutional existence, we can never hope to engage them in any meaningful way. People always know when they are being used. Jesus sent his church out to proclaim salvation for all people. He did not send us out to recruit all people to save our institutions from going under. Too much of what passes for evangelism these days consists of just that. But if we can finally get it through our heads that the church is the Body of Christ given for the sake of the world rather than a private club existing for the benefit of its members, we will have taken a huge step toward making straight the way of the Lord.
For a summary of the Barna report cited above, see this link.
Chapter forty of Isaiah marks the beginning of a section of that book commonly referred to as “The Book of Consolations” or “Second Isaiah.” Whereas the prophet Isaiah of the first thirty-nine chapters preached to Judah in the 8th Century as the nation lived uneasily in the shadow of the Assyrian Empire, the historical context of this unnamed prophet we refer to as “Second Isaiah” is Babylon’s defeat by Cyrus the Great in or around 538 B.C.E. Babylon’s policy was to carry into exile the leading citizenship of the nations it conquered. This reduced the potential for revolution in these captive provinces while bringing into Babylonian society thousands of skilled and gifted leaders. Cyrus’ policy was to permit peoples, such as the Jews, living in exile within the Babylonian territories he conquered to return to their homelands. Though often hailed as an enlightened and compassionate act, Cyrus’ policy was calculated to destabilize Babylon. When the captive populations learned that Cyrus intended to set them free, they were quick to rally to his side against their Babylonian rulers. The prophet of the Book of Consolations recognized in this new historical development the hand of God creating an opportunity for the people of Judah to return to their homeland-and much, much more.
Nachmu, Nachmu, ami omar elohachem or “Comfort, Comfort my people,” says your God. This heading inspired the title, “Book of Consolations” for Isaiah 40-55. As noted above, most of this section of the book was composed sometime in the 500s-two hundred years after the time of the prophet whose oracles are found in Isaiah 1-39. Having been destroyed by Nebuchadnezzar’s army in 587 B.C.E., Jerusalem was now little more than a heap of ruins. The prophet’s commission to cry out words of comfort and consolation to this broken and uninhabited city is reminiscent of God’s command to Ezekiel in chapter 37 of that book to prophesy to the valley filled with dead bones. In both cases, speaking would appear to be a futile exercise. Yet because the prophet speaks the life giving word of God, even the dead cannot remain unmoved. John’s Gospel builds on this understanding by characterizing Jesus as “the Word made flesh.” God is not merely “as good as his word.” God is God’s word. John 1:1.
Speak tenderly to Jerusalem,
and cry to her that she has served her term,
that her penalty is paid, that she has received from the Lord’s hand
double for all her sins.” Vs. 2.
It is not the case that sin can be quantified and erased by a proportionate punishment. Rather, the point is that the Babylonian conquest and subsequent Exile has done what God intended for it to do. Israel is now in the same position she was while in Egypt and God now promises a new act of salvation similar to the Exodus.
‘In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord,
make straight in the desert a highway for our God.
Between the City of Jerusalem and the area between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers where the exiles were living stands a vast desert of rocky hills where the temperatures soar into the triple digits and virtually no water is to be found. Yet just as God once prepared a way through the sea for the Israelites to escape from the armies of Pharaoh, so now God is preparing a way through this forbidding desert for the exiles to return to Jerusalem.
A voice says, ‘Cry out!’ vs. 6. It is important to keep in mind that there were no quotation marks in the Hebrew text. Those appearing in the English translation represent the judgment of the interpreter. Many scholars feel that the translators have misplaced the quotation marks in this chapter. Rather than placing the end of the quote after “what shall I cry?”, many scholars believe that the quotes should close at the end of verse 7. In that case, the key verses read as follows:
A voice says, ‘Cry out!’
And I said, ‘What shall I cry? All people are grass,
their constancy is like the flower of the field.
The grass withers, the flower fades,
when the breath of the Lord blows upon it;
surely the people are grass.’
[The voice responds, ‘Yes, it is true]
The grass withers, the flower fades;
but the word of our God will stand for ever.
[Therefore,] Get you up to a high mountain,
O Zion, herald of good tidings;
lift up your voice with strength,
O Jerusalem, herald of good tidings,
lift it up, do not fear; say to the cities of Judah,
‘Here is your God!’
In my view, this placement yields a more coherent reading.
“Surely the people are grass.” Vs. 7. Many Hebrew Scripture scholars believe this fragment to be the gloss of a later editor. Be that as it may, it fits perfectly the historical and canonical contexts. The remnant of Israel is indeed as frail as grass. The exiles have been living for a generation in a foreign land. They are losing their language. Their young people, who have no memory of Jerusalem’s glorious past, are neglecting worship and perhaps even deserting to the gods of Babylon. Israel is a dying culture of graying heads. Nevertheless, it is not the strength and vigor of the people, but the word of the Lord that will accomplish the miraculous second exodus from Babylon to Judah. Unlike the legacy of nations, tribes and civilizations that flower and fade, the word of the Lord remains forever.
“herald of good tidings” In stark contrast to the prophet Isaiah whose ministry took place during the Assyrian period under Kings Jotham, Ahaz and Hezekiah, this prophet brings no word of warning or judgment. His or her word is strictly one of good news and glad tidings.
“Say to the cities of Judah, ‘Here is your God!’” vs. 10. Throughout his ministry, the prophet Isaiah of the 8th Century (Isaiah 1-39) hoped for a descendent of David that would live up to the high calling of Israel’s king. He was repeatedly disappointed. It is noteworthy that there is only one fleeting reference to David in the Book of Consolations (Isaiah 55:3) and no thought of restoring the line of kingship in Israel. Although some biblical sources portray the Davidic line as a gift from God to Israel, Israel itself was always deeply ambivalent about the office of the king. The prophet Samuel saw Israel’s move toward monarchy as a blatant rejection of God as Israel’s one and only king. See I Samuel 8 & I Samuel 12. The prophet of the Book of Consolations appears to be of the same mind. The only king to which s/he ever refers is God. See Isaiah 44:6.
Clearly, these words of comfort strike a joyous chord for a people that has heard too little comfort. Indeed, I find too often that, rather than being the joyous message of good news, my preaching only unloads additional burdens. “You are not compassionate enough toward the poor; you are not culturally sensitive enough; you are not a welcoming community; you do not give enough;” etc. While all of that might be true, it does little to motivate and much to discourage. The good news is that God bears the burden of bringing about a radically new state of affairs. That burden does not lie upon our shoulders. We are invited (not compelled, or “guilted”) to participate in God’s redemptive purpose for all creation. That puts everything in a new light!
This is a psalm of lament or, as Professor Walter Bruegemann would call it, “a psalm of disorientation.” According to Bruegemann, the psalms address human life in all of its varied seasons. There are seasons of wellbeing in which the faithful heart recognizes the blessedness of a life well lived, the rewards of righteous conduct and the well-oriented structure of human existence as it is lived out in the context of the created world, family and community. There are also seasons of anguish, brokenness and chaos when life does not make sense. Injustice, violence and cruelty seem to abound unchecked. Persons are so traumatized that recovery and healing seems impossible. God seems absent and life is disoriented. Then, too, there are seasons of re-orientation. After severe shock and trauma, life never returns to normal if “normal” means the way things used to be. You never get over losing a child. But you might discover in your grief ever deeper levels of family love, friendship and support that allow you to heal and grow. People who have been through periods of disorientation can never again sing the old songs from the season of well-being in quite the same way. They have learned how much life can hurt. But that is not all they have learned. They have come to recognize that God was indeed present even when God seemed most absent. Re-oriented people no longer expect to be spared from all suffering and disorientation, but they are firmly convinced that, come what may, God will always be with them. See, Bruegemann, Walter, The Message of the Psalms, (c. 1984 Augsburg Publishing House) p. 19.
This psalm begins with an affirmation of God’s faithfulness to Israel in the past. It is critical to understanding what is going on here. Though it is hard to discern the specifics, it is obvious that this prayer was composed during a turbulent time in Israel’s history. Times are hard and the psalmist acknowledges that this is due in no small part to God’s displeasure with Israel. Yet the psalmist can pray confidently because he or she has a recollection of occasions in the past where God has turned from anger to compassion. (see vss. 1-3). The psalm concludes with a confident affirmation of the psalmist’s belief that God will intervene to save once again as God has always done in the past.
Most remarkable is the certainty on the part of the psalmist that steadfast love, faithfulness, peace, righteousness and goodness constitute the future of God’s people. As the earlier verses of the psalm make clear, these words are spoken from a context of despair. The psalmist has lived through a long period of darkness and there is no light at the end of the tunnel. His or her hope arises from memory. The psalmist remembers the faithfulness of God to Israel in dark times past. These memories sustain him or her in the present darkness and open a porthole into a brighter hope.
Memory is important. I have heard stories all my life of deathbed conversions, but I have never seen one and rather doubt that they happen with much frequency. I say that because I believe faith is a habit of the heart. Trust develops in the context of relationships spanning years. Only a history of faithfulness and loyalty proves that the one you trust is in fact trustworthy. If the Lord has been your shepherd leading you through the traumas of adolescence, the challenges of establishing yourself in the world of work, the anguish of family life and the uncertainties that accompany growing older, then it is not such a stretch to believe that the Lord who has taken you so far will accompany you also over the last frontier. Faith like this cannot be learned in a crash course. So let us build these sustaining memories now by attending to worship, prayer, giving, service and daily meditation on the scriptures.
As always, I encourage you to read Psalm 85 in its entirety.
The Second Letter of Peter is probably the last of the New Testament writings. It was probably composed well into the 2nd Century. The letter appears to be dependent in part on the brief Letter of Jude (cf. II Peter 2:1-8 and Jude 4-16). The author speaks of the letters of the Apostle Paul in such a way as to suggest that these letters had been collected into a body of writings and were beginning to be treated as authoritative scriptures. II Peter 3:15-16. Thus, the II Peter would have to have been written well after the death of the Apostle Paul which could not have been much earlier than 65 C.E., and might have been considerably later according to some scholars. In either case, it is all but certain that the letter is not the work of Simon Peter, spokesperson for the Twelve Apostles in the gospels. It is likely the work of a second generation disciple influenced by the teachings of Peter and who therefore published his work under Peter’s name. As I have noted before, this was a common literary practice in antiquity that was not considered dishonest or deceptive. Rather, it was the way in which a disciple honored the master by whom he considered his work to have been inspired.
The twofold purpose of the letter seems to be 1) to address the disappointed hopes of those who had expected the immediate return of Jesus in glory; and 2) to warn the church against false teachers. There is not much said about these false teachers other than that they are evidently within the church, yet bring in false teaching “even denying the Master who bought them.” II Peter 2:1. Whatever their teachings, the author of the letter has nothing but contempt for them, heaping upon them no less than twelve verses of non-stop abuse. II Peter 2:10-22.
Sunday’s lesson dove tails very nicely with the gospel in which Jesus encourages his disciples to stay awake and “watch.” As I have said as recently as last week, I do not believe in the “crisis” experienced in the early church due to the alleged “delay of the parousia” (coming of Jesus in glory). I do believe nonetheless that, in the apostle’s day as now, we grow weary of not knowing what time it is. The church tends to veer between the extremes of apocalyptic certainty that the end is just around the corner or even on an ascertainable date on the one hand, and a demythologized confidence in the purely metaphorical meaning of these passages that renders them harmless and irrelevant. Whether one prefers to believe in a date certain for the end, or whether one prefers a humanistic confidence in the inevitable march of human progress, it amounts to the same thing. It locates our place along a continuum thereby answering that vexing question, “are we there yet?”
The apostle does not give us any such satisfaction here. On the one hand, like Jesus, he insists that the universe as we know it is destined to pass away. Until that process is complete, we wait. Vs. 12. Our waiting is not passive, however. Knowing what we do about the end, we need to be asking ourselves “what sort of persons ought we to be in lives of holiness and godliness.” Vs. 11. If you know the future of creation is Jesus, then your life should conform to Jesus in the present age-even if such a life takes the shape of the cross. Disciples of Jesus are called to live in God’s future now.
This new church year takes us back into the Gospel of Mark. Because Matthew and Luke both relied upon Mark in composing their own gospels, it is possible to examine how each of them made use of Mark’s material and so get a glimpse into their own theological outlooks and purposes. There is no such baseline for Mark, however. Or, to put it another way, Mark is the baseline as far as gospels are concerned. There were no gospels before him as far as we know and scholarly opinions about his source material are, in my humble opinion, speculative at best. So we must take Mark’s gospel as we find it.
One striking thing about Mark’s gospel is its brevity in comparison with Matthew, Luke and even John. Matthew and Luke each have a nativity story. John’s gospel opens with an eloquent poem about the Incarnation. Mark tells us nothing about Jesus’ birth, lineage or place of origin. We hear simply that Jesus came up from Nazareth in Galilee to be baptized by John. Vs. 9. Significantly, when Jesus comes up from the river Jordan after his baptism, he sees the heavens rent apart and the Spirit descending upon him like a dove. Vs. 10. Granted, the “he” could refer either to John or to Jesus. But since John has no reaction to this remarkable event and says nothing about it thereafter, it is more likely that Jesus is the only witness to the descent of the Holy Spirit and the voice proclaiming him God’s Son. Of course, we readers already know this because we have been told in verse 1 that Jesus is both Messiah and Son of God. This information is hidden from most other observers at this point and will remain so throughout the gospel narrative.
A passage from our Hebrew Scripture reading in Isaiah is cited to explain the role of John the Baptist. Like the prophet to the exiles, John is a voice proclaiming liberation and an Eden-like path homeward. Repentance, as used in common parlance, is too much associated with remorse, regret and guilt. While these feelings might very well be associated with repentance, they are minor players. Literally translated, “repentance” means “to turn around.” It is an opportunity to abandon the path of self-destructive sinfulness and pursue a different, life-giving way. You don’t have to repent. You get to repent.
One might wonder why the “Son of God” should need repentance. Again, the problem is that we typically think of repentance only in a negative sense. But as noted previously, to repent means simply to “turn around.” For us, this necessarily means turning away from sin, but that is not the whole story. More importantly, repentance is turning toward an invitation to new life from a gracious and compassionate God. As we will discover throughout Mark’s Gospel, Jesus’ life was one of turning always toward the will of his heavenly Father against all efforts by the devil, his enemies and even his own disciples to turn him in other directions. Consequently, it is possible to say that Jesus’ life was one of constant repentance.
The mood, then, for this gospel is one of joy, hope and anticipation. John has identified for us the “highway of salvation” proclaimed by the prophet in the Book of Isaiah. Mark’s gospel invites us to keep our eyes on him and watch him closely. For salvation will turn out to be nothing like what we think it is!