Archive for January, 2015
FOURTH SUNDAY AFTER EPIPHANY
PRAYER OF THE DAY: Compassionate God, you gather the whole universe into your radiant presence and continually reveal your Son as our Savior. Bring wholeness to all that is broken and speak truth to us in our confusion, that all creation will see and know your Son, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.
“Do you believe in the devil?” I was asked by a young woman I met at a wedding reception I attended some years ago. “No,” I replied. “I believe in Jesus.” She was nothing if not persistent, however, and continued to press the issue. “But do you believe there is a devil?” I was tempted to say that it depends on what you mean by is, but former President Clinton had taken that line away from me just a month or so before as I recall. Too bad, really, because it would have been the correct response.
The Bible doesn’t tell us much about the devil. Most of what we think we know about him comes from extra-biblical literature. For example, there is scant evidence outside of an oblique section of Revelation for the assertion that the devil is a fallen angel. In fact, there is nothing in the Bible suggesting that the devil is or ever was God’s creature. So we are left with the question, what is devil and where did he come from?
We often identify the serpent in the Garden of Eden who tempted Adam and Eve with the devil, but that is saying more than the story itself. Because the serpent was God’s creature, we must assume that it was among the many “creeping things” God made and pronounced good. Concerning the serpent, the Bible says only that it was the most “cunning” of all God’s creatures. Cunning does not necessarily equate with evil. Yet somehow, Adam, Eve and the serpent were caught up in a web of transactions that led to their undoing, their loss of primal trust in the goodness of their Creator. Once that wholehearted trust in God was gone, a vacuum was created where the demonic sprang to life.
If humanity did not actually create the devil, it certainly made room for him to exist. The devil lives in the space we make between each other through prejudice, distrust and fear. The devil haunts the empty corners of ignorant minds, the cracks in broken hearts and that vast and growing gap between the wealthy and the poor. The devil gains a foothold in the fractures of broken homes, divided congregations and warring nations. Is the devil real? I guess we have to say that he is as real as we make him, as big as the space we give him and as powerful as the weapons with which we arm him.
It is clear from Sunday’s gospel that Jesus has come to put the squeeze on the devil. The very minute that Jesus opens his mouth, the devil feels pinched, crowded and driven out. “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth?” the demon cries. “Have you come to destroy us?” The devil knows by now what he is up against. He has already tried every temptation he knows to make Jesus doubt the voice from heaven assuring him that he is indeed God’s beloved Son. There is no room for the devil to exist between Jesus and his heavenly Father. As God’s reign presses in, calling all people to return once again to the embrace of their Creator, their heavenly Father, the devil’s living space shrinks. On that day when, to use Paul’s words, God is “everything to everyone,” there will be no place left for the devil to exist. He will return once again to what he always was-a big nothing.
Deuteronomy is the fifth book of the “Pentateuch,” the first five books of the Bible traditionally attributed to Moses. It should be understood that even from this traditional perspective, authorship was not understood as it is today. Modern biblical research has led to a general consensus that the Pentateuch is the product of four sources and perhaps several editors. For a brief outline of the history for the Pentateuch’s composition, see my post for January 11th. For a more thorough discussion, see this article on the Documentary Hypothesis.
Sunday’s lesson deals with the nettlesome issue of prophetic authority plaguing nearly every religious movement. Who speaks for the Lord to the community of faith after that community’s founding prophet dies? That is the question addressed by our lesson from the Hebrew Scriptures. The Book of Deuteronomy constitutes Moses’ final address to Israel. He knows that he will not be with them as they enter into the Promised Land. Accordingly, Moses speaks “Torah” to the people. This “Torah,” so much more than is conveyed by the word “law” used to translate it in most English Bibles, will serve as the normative guide for Israel’s corporate existence in Canaan. As such, it is a sort of surrogate for Moses himself.
Yet no written scripture, however exhaustive and profound, can take the place of a spiritual leader. Circumstances will be different for Israel in Canaan than they were for her in Egypt and in her journey through the wilderness. Some of the dangers Moses can foresee and address. Most of them are not even imaginable. Such is also the case for the Christian community. Paul could never have foreseen, much less addressed, the important ethical issues Christians face today. You won’t find many references in your biblical concordance to human cloning, biological warfare, genetic engineering, in vitro fertilization, global warming or fracking. That isn’t to say that the scriptures cannot enlighten us on these matters. It is obvious, however, that we will need someone to interpret them. We will need people who understand fully how Moses, the prophets and the apostles thought about issues in their own time and who are capable of applying that wisdom to our thinking about the challenges we face today. In other words, we need prophets.
Moses was well aware of that need and he speaks to it in our lesson. He promises that God will raise up prophets like himself to speak the word of the Lord to Israel as she takes up her new life in Canaan. Vs. 15. That is a gracious word. God does not intend simply to leave Israel with a user manual for the new life God has given her. The scriptures are living documents. Not only were they inspired by the Holy Spirit, but their continued power for subsequent generations depends on that Spirit working in the hearts of all who preach and teach them. Thus, the well-loved Lutheran dictum “Sola Scriptura” cannot be taken to mean that the scriptures alone are sufficient to govern the church. From very early on, the church has formulated creeds to articulate the heart of the scriptural witness. We can see the seeds of such creedal authority in the scriptures themselves. For example, in I Timothy Paul remarks: “Great indeed, we confess, is the mystery of our religion: He was manifested in the flesh, vindicated in the Spirit, seen by angels, preached among the nations, believed on in the world, taken up in glory.” I Timothy 3:16.
Yet while creeds can keep our focus on what is central to the scriptural witness and help us avoid “wander[ing] away into vain discussion,” they cannot by themselves produce “love that issues from a pure heart and a good conscience and sincere faith.” I Timothy 1:3-7. For that, “teaching” and “prophetic utterance” are essential. I Timothy 4:14. Here I differ with a number of theologians who have said over the years that disciples of Jesus are a “people of the book.” That we clearly are not. We are a people of the resurrected Jesus. That is not to denigrate the scriptures. They constitute the normative witness to Jesus. All other witnesses, including the ecumenical creeds, stand under their judgment. Yet they point beyond themselves to the one we confess to be God’s only beloved Son incarnate, crucified and raised for the life of the world. Faith is not subscription to scriptural doctrines or principles. It is trust in a living person. The authority of the Bible is therefore inseparably linked to the living community of disciples through whom faith is mediated by teaching, preaching and the example of holy living.
In one sense, the prophetic task belongs to the whole community. Thus, we encourage all believers to share their faith in Jesus and to speak out on behalf of the poor, the weak and the vulnerable in public forums and to their elected representatives. We expect all believers to be involved in the ministry of teaching. A little appreciated fact about Luther’s Small Catechism is that it was written as a guide for parents to introduce their children to the Christian faith, not as a model curriculum for pastors to teach confirmation classes. Yet it seems inevitable that prophetic authority for the community must be invested in someone. I have gotten to know several groups within the Anabaptist and Pentecostal traditions that have strong anti-clerical streaks. They place a special emphasis on the priesthood of all believers. I have observed, however, that even within these groups there is usually one or more persons who stand out as authorities on matters of faith and life. Thus, even though they lack formal designation as authorities, they are recognized as authoritative nonetheless. As our gospel lesson demonstrates, authority can make itself felt without credentials.
Be all of this as it may, I believe that the church is best served when we are intentional about who we invest with prophetic authority. There is something to be said for standards, requirements and systems of accountability for the ministry of public preaching and the Lutheran confessional requirement that this ministry be legitimated by a “call” formally recognized in the church. Preaching is too important a task to be left in the hands of whoever shows up on Sunday and has the inclination to do it. Would you want a layperson with only a deep appreciation for medicine and a desire to try practicing surgery operating on your spine? How much less your soul!
Of course, neither individual zeal nor official recognition can guaranty that prophetic speech will not go off the rails. That is one of the concerns addressed in the verses following our lesson: How can we be sure the preacher is giving us the word of the Lord and not something else? How do you distinguish a true prophet from a false one? The only way to make this determination is to discern whether the prophet’s words prove true. Deuteronomy 18:21-22. If we understand prophecy to be no more than predicting the future, this advice is practically worthless. But of course, prophecy is much more than astrology. Prophesy is not principally foretelling the future, but forthtelling God’s word to our present circumstances. Prophets do not speak in a vacuum. They speak from the scriptural witness; their scriptural interpretations are normed by the creedal statements and, most specifically, by Jesus. For the church, Jesus is our way into the scriptures, the light by which we read the scriptures and the Spirit by which we interpret the scriptures. Prophesy is therefore not to be accepted blindly or uncritically. Paul encouraged his hearers to examine the scriptures in order to validate his preaching. Acts 17:11. John warns us to “test the spirits” in order to avoid giving heed to false prophets. I John 4:1. Genuine prophetic ministry thrives where there exists a healthy tension between the scriptures, the prophetic voice of public preaching and the critical discernment of the whole people of God.
This psalm is an “acrostic” poem, meaning that each strophe begins with a new letter of the Hebrew alphabet in sequential order. Other psalms of this family are Psalm 119; Psalm 9; Psalm 10; Psalm 25; Psalm 34; Psalm 37; Psalm 112; and Psalm 145. It is possible that this psalm is related to Psalm 112, also an acrostic poem. Whereas the theme of Psalm 111 is the goodness and faithfulness of the Lord, Psalm 112 speaks of the blessedness of the person who fears and trusts in the Lord. Because the acrostic form is a relatively late development in Hebrew poetry, most scholars date this psalm during the period after the Babylonian Exile.
The psalm makes clear that the greatness of God is made known in God’s works. Though the Exodus, wilderness wanderings, conquest of Canaan and the return from exile are not specifically referenced, they were doubtlessly in the mind of the psalmist as s/he proclaimed the redemption of God’s people. Vs. 9. The giving of the law appears to be the paramount act of salvation in the psalmist’s mind. The statutes of the Lord are “trustworthy…established forever and ever. Vs. 8. It was, after all, the Torah that preserved Israel’s identity throughout the long years of Babylonian captivity and kept alive the hope that finally inspired her return and the rebuilding of Jerusalem and the temple.
The most memorable and familiar verse is the final one: “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” Vs. 10. Fear of God is a distasteful notion to us moderns who prefer a deity similar to the white, upper middle class, slightly left of center dad of the Ward Clever variety. But the Bible testifies to a God who is sometimes scary and not always very nice (though the lectionary folks do their best to shave off his rough edges with their incessant editing). Fear is usually the first emotion biblical characters express when face to face with God or one of God’s angelic messengers. So anyone who has no apprehension about encountering God is probably downright foolhardy.
Frankly, I think that if we feared God more, we might fear a lot of other things less. Worshipers of Israel’s God should know that instead of fretting over what the deficit will do to us if we commit ourselves to providing everyone with sufficient housing, food and medical care, we ought to be concerned about what God might do to us if we don’t. If the good people on Capitol Hill believed that on the last day God will confront all nations and peoples through the eyes of everyone they could have clothed, fed, befriended and cared for, I think the log jam over social legislation would disappear in a New York minute. The fact that most of these folks self-identify as Christians shows just how poor a job their churches have done teaching them what they should and should not fear. Healthy fear understands that the decisions we make matter-eternally so.
This section of Paul’s letter is not particularly “relevant” in terms of its subject matter. When I purchase meat, I don’t worry much about whether it was used in some pagan sacrificial rite. I am more concerned about the conditions under which the animal in question was raised, what it was fed and injected with, how it was butchered and processed. Sometimes I wonder whether I should be eating meat in the first place. These, however, are entirely different issues than those with which Paul is concerned. The question of consuming pagan sacrificial meat arises out of the larger context of Corinthian culture in which Paul’s congregation was situated:
“A glance at the plan of the excavated forum of Roman Corinth detects the numerous temples and shrines in it dedicated to various gods that non-Christian Corinthians reverenced. Civic and social life in such a city would have meant an obligation to join in festivals, celebrations, and public ceremonies on occasions when religion and politics were not clearly demarcated; there were also many guilds of tradesmen and other voluntary associations in which specific gods were honored with banquets and sacrificial meals. Feasts in honor of various deities were celebrated regularly in numerous temples, when food (cereals, cheese, honey) were offered and animals (goats, cows, bulls, horses) were sacrificed to them, according to the manuals of the pontifices. The meat of animals so slaughtered, when not fully consumed in sacrifice, was often eaten by the offerers and attending temple servants. The latter sold at times the surplus meat on the markets.” Fitzmyer, Joseph A., First Corinthians, The Anchor Yale Bible, Vol. 32 (c. 2008 by Yale University) p. 331.
In this cultural setting, a disciple’s faithfulness to Jesus as the Son of Israel’s God cut across loyalties of professional, social and legal obligations inherent in daily life. Your clients and business associates might well begin to wonder why you are routinely turning down their dinner invitations. Your community might question your patriotism when you avoid civil ceremonies that invariably involve pagan sacrificial rites. Your old friends might be deeply hurt when you refuse to accept gifts of food from sacrificial feasts. Furthermore, how can you be sure that the meat you buy in the market place has not been used in one of these feasts?
Some in the Corinthian church took a pragmatic view. They knew that there is no God but one. They knew that food is derived from God’s good creation and does not become any less good simply because some pagan priest mumbles a few words of devotion to a god that doesn’t even exist. So why not eat and enjoy? Whatever the pagans may think, we know that meat is meat and that it is meant to be enjoyed as God’s good gift.
Paul seems to agree with these “knowledgeable” folks in principle. But there is more to all of this than “knowledge.” For most people, the pagan rituals pervading social life in Corinth were pregnant with meaning and significance. It was practically impossible for them to separate the eating of sacrificial meat from participation in the sacrificial rite. They could no more eat sacrificial meat without being drawn into its religious significance than can an alcoholic indulge in “just one little drink.”
“So what?” say those “with knowledge.” “Why should the scruples of other people stand in the way of what we do with a clear conscience?” “Because,” Paul replies, “this ‘knowledge’ of yours is not the guiding principle.” As Paul pointed out to us last week, just because we are free to do something does not mean that we ought to do it. Here the guiding principle is not ‘knowledge’ but love. Vs. 3. It is true that in Christ we are free to enjoy the good gifts of God’s creation without worrying about all the other so-called ‘gods’ that pagans believe in. Nevertheless, we are obligated as members of Christ’s church to place the welfare of our sisters and brothers above our own desires. Everything a believer does must be done with the well-being of the whole church and all of its members in mind. Thus, although Paul shares the “knowledge” of his critics and the freedom they prize so highly, he will not exercise this freedom in any way that undermines the faith of any member of the church. If that means giving up meat altogether, so be it. Vs. 13.
Again, this issue is obviously a non-issue for us 21st Century believers. But Paul’s approach to it is still as timely as ever. A good dose of Paul’s advice would go a long way toward easing the tension that comes with changes in liturgy, remodeling of sacred space and discussion of controversial issues in the church. A lot of us feel that change comes far too slowly in the church. Many of us get frustrated with constant resistance to anything new. We are tempted to resort to the ways of the world in dealing with such resistance. We build alliances, stack committees, resort to political power, appeal to legal/constitutional provisions and settle matters by means of majority vote. All of that is a lot easier than the slow, cumbersome and painful work of building consensus. Yet consensus is the way of the cross and the only way to health for the whole Body of Christ.
Immediately following his call to the four fishermen, Jesus enters Capernaum and begins teaching in the synagogue there. Capernaum was a fishing village located on the northern shore of the Sea of Galilee about two miles from the entrance of the Jordan River. Though scholarly opinion is not entirely unanimous, most commentators believe the precise location to be at the site of the ruins of a town that came to be known by the Arabic name, Tell Hum. Taylor, Vincent, The Gospel According to St. Mark, (2nd Ed.), Thornapple Commentaries, (c. 1966 by Vincent Taylor, pub. Baker House Co.) p. 171. During the early part of the 1st Century C.E. the town had a population of about fifteen hundred. Archaeological excavations have revealed two ancient synagogues built one over the other. A church near Capernaum is said to be the home of the Apostle Peter.
Synagogue worship consisted of prayers, benedictions, readings from the law and the prophets with translations from Hebrew into Aramaic, the language of the people. Expositions of the readings were conducted by the scribes who were the official interpreters of Torah. Hooker, Morna D., The Gospel According to Saint Mark, Black’s New Testament Commentaries (c. 1991 by Morna D. Hooker, pub. A&C Black (Publishers) Limited) p. 63. Most scribes belonged to the party of the Pharisees, though some were associated with the Sadducees. Ibid. In either case, these scribes would have grounded their teachings upon citations to Torah. It appears that Jesus speaks in the voice of prophesy without citation to any scriptural authority. His is a “new” teaching, not simply a recasting of the old. The people are therefore “astounded” because Jesus speaks “with authority” unlike the scribes. Vs. 22.
Somehow, a man with an unclean spirit appears among the worshipers. This “unholy spirit,” is the one and only one who recognizes Jesus as the “holy” one of God. The crowds don’t know quite what to make of this astonishing teacher. The disciples have not weighed in yet either. Of course, we have known from Mark 1:1 that Jesus is the messiah and the Son of God. Jesus knows this because God has called him the beloved Son at his baptism. Mark 1:11. As the story continues, however, we will discover that we do not know what we think we know. Jesus will turn out to be a very different sort of messiah than Israel was expecting and the Son of a very different sort of God than the one we think we know.
The demon asks “What do you have to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us?” Vs. 24. The former phrase might better be translated “What do we have in common?” or “Why are you interfering with us?” or simply “Mind your own business!” Cranfield, C.E.B., The Gospel According to St. Mark, The Cambridge Greek Testament Commentary (c. 1959 Cambridge University Press), p. 75. The demon’s use of the first person plural “us” suggests that it is speaking for demons as a class. Vs. 24. The demons know that Jesus will be their undoing. Their invocation of Jesus’ name is a vain effort to gain control over him. Ibid. 77. The common belief was that learning the name of a deity conferred a certain degree of power over that deity. Ibid. This demonic effort at getting a leg up on Jesus fails. Even in the mouth of a demoniac, the name of Jesus glorifies Jesus. Jesus silences the demon’s witness and casts it out. Vs. 25. This mighty act of power over the demonic further demonstrates Jesus’ authority which goes beyond mere speech. His authority flows as much through what he does as what he says. Jesus’ teaching is indeed both new and authoritative. Vs. 27.
This story emphasizes the radical “newness” of God’s reign pressing in upon the old order. The demonic opposition is a harbinger of the confrontation to come between Jesus and the powers that be. The cross and resurrection are foreshadowed in each episode of Mark’s gospel. Even as Jesus is gradually revealed, he is increasingly concealed as everything we think we know about him proves inadequate, incomplete or just plain wrong.
THIRD SUNDAY AFTER EPIPHANY
PRAYER OF THE DAY: Almighty God, by grace alone you call us and accept us in your service. Strengthen us by your Spirit, and make us worthy of your call, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.
Doesn’t it just burn you up when you see that character in the sporty little BMW cruising along in the shoulder past a mile of creeping cars like yours and then trying to merge in at the last minute-and somebody always lets him in. Always. And then there is the guy in his pickup with the Confederate flag on the back weaving in and out of traffic, passing on the right, tailgating everyone who gets in his way. Ever notice how there is never a police car in sight when that happens? Never. Worst of all is that woman whose car has only one speed, 50 MPH. That is her cruising speed whether she is in the left lane of the New Jersey Turnpike or in the middle of a school zone. Yet somehow she manages to keep her license. Meanwhile, I am writing out my check to pay the parking ticket I got because my bumper extended an inch or so over the yellow line extending from the intersection. And we wonder why people have road rage.
The prophet Jonah had a bad case of road rage. You may recall that Jonah was the reluctant prophet sent (dragged kicking and screaming, actually) to proclaim God’s judgment upon the city of Nineveh. We don’t hear about the temper tantrum he threw in our lesson for Sunday, but we are told the reason for it. God spared the evil city of Nineveh from the judgment of destruction God had decreed for it. Understand that Nineveh was the capital city of Assyria, the biggest geopolitical bully on the block for much of Israel’s history. The Assyrians destroyed the Northern Kingdom of Israel altogether and reduced the Southern Kingdom of Judah to a mere vassal state subject to military occupation and crushing taxation. The Assyrians were cruel, blood thirsty and destructive. Whatever judgment God might wreak upon their capital would be well deserved-and the sooner the better as far as Jonah was concerned. Jonah was looking forward to some big time payback.
But the story takes an unexpected turn. Jonah’s preaching succeeded as no other prophet’s preaching ever had. His words brought the proud nation of Assyria to its knees in repentance. When God saw this great communal change of heart, God also repented of the judgment intended for Nineveh. “Really?” cries Jonah. “Seriously? You destroy the city and temple of your own people and send them into exile for breaking their covenant with you. But these terrorist thugs, who don’t even know your name and have never lifted a finger to obey your law, they get off scot free just because they weep a few crocodile tears and throw a little dust on their heads. This you call justice?”
The problem with people like Jonah and me is that we are incapable of taking the long view. I see bad drivers from my own narrow perspective. I seldom ask myself what is going on in their lives. For example, the guy racing ahead of the pack to cut in further up might be responding to a call informing him that his child has been in an accident and is clinging to life in the ICU. The woman stuck at 50 MPH perhaps knows that she is not up to driving anymore, but has no one to take her shopping or to the doctor. Even wantonly reckless driving, for which there is no justification, is rooted in motives, circumstances and events I have no way of knowing or understanding. So who am I to say what is just in any of these situations?
Furthermore, who am I to demand justice? Am I willing to place my own life and conduct on the same scale of justice I want for everyone else? Do I really want to receive from God what in God’s view I deserve? If that is justice, I don’t think anybody in their right mind would ask for it. As a poet once observed, “Ain’t no one alive should have the nerve/to say we all should get what we deserve.”
Fortunately for us, God’s view of justice is a good deal more expansive than ours. We tend to view justice in terms of Anglo/American jurisprudence. It’s all a matter of rights and remedies. When you and I have a dispute, we go to court. The court determines whose rights have been violated and how much money should be paid in compensation to the injured party. Then the case is over. The court has no interest in the parties or the dispute after that. But God is deeply interested in what takes place after judgment has been entered. It is not enough that restitution be made. The parties must be reconciled before justice is done. So whether God punishes or refrains from punishing, the objective is reconciliation with God and between God’s people. Reconciliation, not payback, is always the end game.
Ironically, God seems to be having more success in that realm with the godless empire of Assyria than with his own prophet. Would that God’s prophet were as deeply moved by God’s mercy as are the people of Nineveh! Would that Jonah understood that God cares less about vindicating rights than restoring relationships. Would that the church were an island of reconciliation in a world driven mad with road rage justice.
The Book of Jonah is unique among the books of the prophets. Instead of a collection of oracles and speeches sometimes framed with narrative, Jonah is narrative from beginning to end with a psalm of praise thrown into the center of the book. It is the story of a prophet who, unlike the God he serves, values justice over mercy. Or, perhaps it would be more accurate to say that he values his own truncated view of justice over God’s more expansive view. Make no mistake about it, the God of the Bible (Old Testament as well as New) is no indulgent grandfather who cannot bring himself to discipline the kids as they merrily trash the house. God’s judgments have teeth, as the Babylonian exiles can attest. Nonetheless, God’s punishment is never an end in itself. If God wounds, God wounds in order to bring about healing. That insight is lost on poor Jonah.
The majority consensus of most Hebrew Scripture commentators is that the Book of Jonah was composed in the Post-Exilic period during the latter half of the 4th Century B.C.E. Neil, W. “The book of Jonah” published in The Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, Vol. II ed. By George Arthur Buttrick (c. 1962 by Abington Press) p. 966. It has long been suggested that this book was written to challenge the exclusivist policies expressed in the books of Ezra and Nehemiah which went so far as to require the dissolution of marriages between Jews and persons of less than pure Jewish lineage. Ibid. But as Professor Terrence Fretheim points out, there are problems with this view. “None of the specific issues dealt with by Ezra and Nehemiah are even alluded to in the book (such as mixed marriages and mixed languages, see Nehemiah 9, 10; Ezra 9, 10).” Fretheim, Terrence, The Message of Jonah (c. 1977 by Augsburg Publishing House) p. 35. For this and other reasons, recent commentators suggest an earlier date somewhere between 475 B.C.E. and 450 B.C.E. E.g., Burrows, M., “The Literary Category of the Book of Jonah” published in Translating and Understanding the Old Testament, ed. By H. Frank & W. Reed (c. 1971 by Abingdon) p. 105. The issue appears to be more one of God’s treatment of Israel among the nations than Israel’s treatment of non-Jews within its midst, though I would add that the two issues are not entirely unrelated.
The author of this prophetic book selected the name “Jonah son of Amittai” for his protagonist. This is no random choice. In II Kings, Jonah is credited with prophesying the salvation of Israel from foreign oppression by the hand of Jeroboam II. Though Jeroboam “did what was evil in the sight of the Lord” and “made Israel to sin,” God nonetheless “saw that the affliction of Israel was very bitter…” and that “there was none to help Israel.” II Kings 14:23-26. Out of compassion God “saved [Israel] by the hand of Jeroboam the son of Joash.” II Kings 14:27. One would think that a prophet who foretold and witnessed God’s salvation of his own sinful people by the hand of their sinful king could find it in his heart to welcome the extension of that mercy to the rest of creation. But Jonah turns out to be more than a little tightfisted with God’s grace.
It is also noteworthy that no mention is made of repentance on the part of Israel in II Kings. Jonah’s preaching does not seem to have had much effect on the hearts of his own people. By contrast, the people of Nineveh are moved by Jonah’s preaching to acts of repentance never before seen in Israel or anywhere else. This is remarkable as Jonah has done everything possible so far to avoid success in Nineveh. First he tries to run away from the job. Then he preaches a sermon that is all but unintelligible. “Yet forty days and Nineveh will be overthrown.” That’s it. The whole sermon. Jonah does not tell the people of Nineveh why they are going to be overthrown, who is going to overthrow them or whether there is anything they can possibly do to avoid being overthrown. Nevertheless, the word of the Lord somehow breaks through the prophet’s few and feeble words. Somehow, the people discover the depth of their sin and, more marvelously still, they begin to suspect that the God under whose judgment they stand has a merciful heart. Jonah is a wildly successful prophet in spite of himself!
The reading tells us that God “repented” of all that God intended to do at Nineveh. Does God change God’s mind? Yes and no. God will never cease loving God’s creation; God will never give up on God’s people; God will never abandon God’s plan to redeem creation. In that sense, it is quite proper to say that God’s will is eternally predestined and not subject to change. It is also true that God’s creation is in constant flux requiring God’s love for it to change shape, adapt to new circumstances and express itself in different ways. To that extent, it is fair to say that God changes, adapts and even “repents.”
This psalm is classified as a “Psalm of Trust,” though I think it has elements of lament as well. The psalmist is clearly in a difficult situation with former friends having turned against him. Indeed, they press him so hard that he feels like “a leaning wall, a tottering fence.” Vs. 3 (not in the reading). These “friends” are perfidious, flattering him with their speech while inwardly cursing him and plotting to “cast him down.” Vs. 4 (not in the reading). This is the context in which we need to view the verses making up our lesson.
The psalmist does not respond in kind to his foes. S/he does not respond to them at all. Instead, s/he waits in silence for God who is his/her true hope. Vs. 5. God is the psalmist’s “rock.” Vs. 6. In order to understand the full impact of this assertion, we need to back up to verse 4 which is not in our reading. There the psalmist accuses his foes of planning to “bring down a person of eminence.” This translation does not do justice to the Hebrew which states that these enemies are seeking to bring the psalmist down from his “height,” meaning a “rock” or defensive “tower.” Rogerson, J.W. and McKay, J.W., Psalms 51-100, The Cambridge Bible Commentary (c. 1977 by Cambridge University Press) p. 62. Thus, verse 6 replies that the psalmist’s “rock” and “fortress” is God. Though the psalmist may be a “leaning wall” and a “tottering fence,” the “rock” upon which s/he takes his/her stand is sure. The psalmist’s deliverance comes not from outwitting his enemies at their own game or in employing against them the same venomous and hateful stratagems they use on him/her, but in God’s anticipated salvation. vs. 7.
In verse 8 the psalmist turns to admonish his fellow worshipers to likewise place their faith in God and to pour out their hearts before him. Vs. 8. Human power and wealth is illusory. Vs. 9. Extortion and robbery do not lead to any true and lasting security. Wealth may be enjoyed, but never trusted to provide security. Vs. 10. Verse 11 continues the admonition with a numerical formula found frequently throughout biblical “wisdom literature:” “One thing God has spoken, twice have I heard this…” So also in the Book of Proverbs, “There are six things that the Lord hates, seven that are an abomination to him: haughty eyes, a lying tongue, and hands that shed innocent blood, a heart that devises wicked plans, feet that hurry to run to evil, a lying witness who testifies falsely, and one who sows discord in a family.” Proverbs 6:16-19. A similar construction is used by Amos in his prophetic oracles: “Thus says the Lord: For three transgressions of Damascus, and for four, I will not revoke the punishment; because they have threshed Gilead with threshing-sledges of iron. So I will send a fire on the house of Hazael, and it shall devour the strongholds of Ben-hadad. I will break the gate-bars of Damascus and cut off the inhabitants from the Valley of Aven, and the one who holds the scepter from Beth-eden; and the people of Aram shall go into exile to Kir, says the Lord.” Amos 1:3-5. See also Amos 1:6-2:8. Here the construction serves to emphasize the two inseparable truths: All true power belongs to God and, equally important, so does “steadfast love.” Vs. 11-12.
The psalm complements our lesson from Jonah in emphasizing how God’s steadfast love drives and shapes the expression of God’s power. The saving power of God is contrasted here with the malicious exercise of raw power against the psalmist by his/her enemies. Love is finally the only power worth having and the only power worthy of trust.
This is a rather gloomy chunk of scripture. Paul seems to be giving advice to young unmarried people, the sum and substance of which is “married is good, but single is better.” Significantly, Paul begins this discussion with a disclaimer: “I have no command of the Lord, but I give my opinion as one who by the Lord’s mercy is trustworthy.” Vs. 25. I am not sure what Paul means when he speaks of the “present distress.” Vs. 26. I don’t get the impression that the church in Corinth is experiencing the kind of hostility and persecution we hear about in Philippi, Thessalonica and Ephesus. I get the impression that Paul is alluding not to any local source of distress, but rather to the general distress growing out of the fact that “the form of this world is passing away.” Vs. 31.
One simple explanation for this reading lies in attributing to Paul the mistaken notion that the end of the world was imminent. Of course, if the world is ending tomorrow it makes little sense to marry, bear children and build a home. Time would be better spent preparing for the end and getting the word of the gospel out while there is still time. Marriage and other family attachments only hinder one’s effectiveness as a disciple of Jesus. Anyone who follows this blog knows that I do not believe Jesus, Paul or any of the other New Testament authors held any such view. I don’t believe there ever was a “crisis” in the church precipitated by the “delay of Christ’s return.”
I believe that the “present distress” arises from what Paul describes in his letter to the Romans as “the whole creation…groaning in travail together until now…” as “we who have the fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies.” Romans 8:22-23. The pains of dissolution for the old order are the birth pangs for the new. God is at work in the world’s turmoil bringing the new creation to birth. In much the same way, God’s Spirit is at work in our dying to self and rising to Christ as we live out our discipleship within the Body of Christ. Marriage is an exclusive relationship of intimacy that is, at least potentially, at odds with the disciple’s relationship of intimate love between members of the whole Body of Christ described in I Corinthians 13. It is very telling that this “love chapter” is a favorite for weddings, though it has nothing to do with marriage and everything to do with the church! While Paul clearly believes that marriage is both legitimate and capable of integration into the larger community of love within Christ’s Body, he nevertheless believes that life in Christ will be a good deal simpler and easier for the single than for the married-at least for those who can handle being single.
Once again, this is by Paul’s own admission his own personal view colored by his experience as a single person. I choose to treat it as just that. Great for Paul and others like him, but not so much for the rest of us. For all of us, though, the text is a reminder that nothing of the world as we know it is permanent. Neither marriage, nor one’s profession, nor one’s accomplishments are eternal. When we treat them as if they were, we cross over into the sin of idolatry.
There are three important imperatives introduced in verses 14-15: 1) The time is fulfilled; 2) repent; and 3) believe the good news. The New Testament uses two Greek words for what the English versions translate as “time.” “Kronos” means chronological time measureable in days, weeks and years. “Kairos” means time in the sense of “the time has come” or “it’s about time.” A kairos moment is a defining one, such as Pearl Harbor for my parent’s generation; the assassination of President Kennedy in my own; and the 9/11 attack for that of my children. Kairos time changes the trajectory of history, propelling us into new directions. Mark uses the word “kairos” indicating that this moment within chronological time proclaimed by Jesus is special. It is a time such as the Exodus-a time in which God exercises saving power propelling the world in the direction of God’s redemptive intent for it. This time is “at hand” (“eggizo” in Greek). The verb means to approach, or draw near. Mark uses it in the “aorist” tense which is like our past tense only stronger in that it denotes completed action.
This Kairos moment of Jesus’ in-breaking upon the society of Israel coincides with John the Baptist’s arrest. The relationship between the ministry of John and that of Jesus is not worked out in Mark to the extent that it is in the other gospels, though Mark does intimate that John’s role is similar if not identical to Elijah’s eschatological task of “restoring all things.” Mark 9:11-13. See also Malachi 4:5-6. The identification of Jesus’ rising with John’s arrest might also emphasizes the newness of all that Jesus represents. As we will see in the story of the Transfiguration, the focus now is neither upon Moses (the law) nor Elijah (the prophets), but upon God’s beloved Son. Mark 9:2-8.
The term “kingdom of God” is not an apt translation of Mark’s meaning in verse 15. Just as we have come to identify “church” as a building with a steeple, so we have come to view the kingdom of God as a place. Too often the kingdom is equated with some very unbiblical conceptions of “heaven.” The better translation might be “the reign of God” or the “sovereignty of God.” Thus, when Jesus declares that God’s reign has drawn near, he means that God’s sovereignty is pressing in and making itself felt. The only appropriate response to this new reality is repentance and faith.
Repent (metanoeo in Greek) is not all about feeling remorse or guilt. Literally, the word means simply “to turn around.” It refers to a radical change of heart; a turning toward God’s call away from one’s old way of living. The word Mark uses for “believe” is the Greek word “pisteuo,” meaning “to trust,” or “have confidence in” someone or something. “Good news” (“euggelion” in the Greek) means just that. Sometimes translated “gospel,” it refers to a royal proclamation with kingly authority behind it. In this case, of course, the authority behind the good news is God. Mark makes clear that Jesus’ appearance on the stage of history inaugurates the reign of God.
While there is never any mention of the church in Mark’s gospel, it is powerfully present throughout in the community of disciples called into existence by Jesus’ proclamation of God’s reign. The church is less an institution than a gathering that springs into existence wherever Jesus speaks and acts. It is hardly coincidental that the calling of the first disciples comes as Jesus embarks upon his mission.
The renowned New Testament scholar Rudolph Bultmann believes that this story about the call of the four disciples is a “biographical apothegm,” that is, an idealized story of faith inspired by the early Christian metaphor, “fishers of men.” Bultmann, Rudolf, The History of the Synoptic Tradition, (c. 1963 by Blackwell, Oxford, pub. by Harper & Row) p. 56. By contrast, commentator Vincent Taylor views this story as an actual historical reminiscence of the disciples preserved in the preaching of the New Testament church. Taylor, Vincent, The Gospel According to St. Mark, (Second Ed.) Thornapple Commentaries (c. 1966 by Vincent Taylor, pub. by Baker Book House Co.) p. 168. Naturally, there are all shades of opinion in between.
While slightly more interesting than most cocktail chat, the conversation does not strike me as particularly important. The issue is not whether and to what extent the gospels can be relied upon to provide the so called “objective historical data” we imagine to be so critical. The real question is whether or not the New Testament “got Jesus right.” If it did, it matters not one wit how the gospel narrative is weighed by our rather antiquated 19th Century notions of what constitutes “history.” If the New Testament got Jesus wrong, then we shall have to embark upon that seemingly endless quest for the “historical Jesus.” For all who wish to undertake this journey, I wish you the best of luck. While you are out there, see if you can find the Iraqi weapons of mass destruction, Barak Obama’s Kenyon birth certificate and the bodies of those three aliens whose spaceship crashed at Roswell.
The compelling lure of Jesus’ call to discipleship and the repentance and faith it elicits find concrete expression in the response of the four fishermen. Hooker, Morna, D., The Gospel According to Saint Mark, Black’s New Testament Commentaries (c. 1991 by Morna D. Hooker, pub. by Hendrickson Publishers, Inc.) p. 59, pp. 60-61. Andrew and Peter leave their nets, valuable income producing property, on the lake shore to follow Jesus. James and John leave their father and his business, their own future livelihood, to answer Jesus’ call. While the fishermen were hardly wealthy, they were not poverty stricken either. They were men who had established themselves in a life sustaining craft. It cannot be said that they flocked to Jesus out of sheer desperation. They left behind a reasonably secure existence for the sake of God’s reign. As Hooker points out, Peter’s boast in Mark 10:28 is not an idle one. Ibid at p. 61.
This story has always proven to be problematic for the post-Constantine church whose role has been to provide ideological support for commerce, the family and all of the other critical institutions of the empire. Our Lutheran doctrine of the “two kingdoms” epitomizes the schizophrenic consequences of trying to pour the new wine of God’s reign into the old skins of Caesar’s empire. In theory, God has two hands. With one, God offers salvation by grace through faith by the work of the church. With the other hand, God ordains civil governments to maintain a semblance of order in a sinful world so that the work of the church can flourish unhindered by violence, chaos and oppression. Sounds good on paper, but when you raise a young person for eighteen years to love enemies, forgive wrongs and to view all people as persons created in God’s image and then turn him over to the armed forces to be made into a killing machine-what you get is PTSD. To a lesser degree, we have highly conflicted individuals in professions like law, business and medicine designed to generate profit whatever else their guiding principles might say. Sending young people into this jungle with instructions to practice their professions for Jesus may help boost sales for valium, but does little to promote discipleship or proclaim the reign of God.
In this day and age, the empire has figured out that it can get along famously without the church. Individuals over the last several decades have been making the same discovery and leaving us in droves. Instead of inducing institutional panic, this development ought to be greeted with thanksgiving. Now that we are finally free from having to prop up Caesar’s kingdom, we can hear anew the call of Jesus to live under God’s gentle and peaceful reign.
SECOND SUNDAY AFTER EPIPHANY
PRAYER OF THE DAY: Thanks be to you, Lord Christ, most merciful redeemer, for the countless blessings and befits you give. May we know you more clearly, love you more dearly, and follow you more nearly, day by day praising you, with the Father and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.
One evening long ago I was reading Bible stories to my children. I cannot remember anymore which story I was reading, but I recall very well what happened when I finished. Middle daughter Emily piped up and asked me, “How come God doesn’t talk to us anymore?” Naturally, my first instinct was to respond that God does indeed speak to us through the preaching of the word and through the sacraments. That, after all, is the proper Lutheran answer. But somehow, I knew that by giving such a response, doctrinally correct as it is, I would have been dodging the real issue. Emily was missing the immediacy of God’s presence in her little life. The visions, miracles and revelations in the stories she had been told were not part of her day to day experience. Yet her very recognition of this absence suggested the working of God’s Spirit. This was perhaps the first inclination I had that Emily might be experiencing God’s call to ministry.
As often as I have heard the well-worn complaint that people are drifting away from religion, I still don’t believe it. Oddly enough, one complaint registered repeatedly in interviews of people who have left the church is the lack of connection they felt with God when they were still trying to participate in the church. It isn’t that we are too religious. Our problem is that we are not religious enough. People are leaving us because they are not encountering the call of Jesus to a life of discipleship. Ironically enough, the persons most likely to leave the church are those who, like Emily, sense a lack of God’s presence in their lives and find nothing in the church to address that emptiness.
In Sunday’s lesson from the Hebrew Scriptures, the young boy Samuel hears the voice of the Lord in a time when most folks have become convinced that God no longer speaks. Yet he is not able to hear that word on his own. It is Eli who recognizes that God is calling Samuel. He is the one who instructs Samuel to listen, to respond and to be open to the voice of the Lord. As we will discover in reading the lesson, old Eli had his shortcomings. But he was able to recognize in Samuel a young man called to ministry and to mentor, encourage and instruct him. If only we had more discerning people like Eli, we might find that fewer promising people leave us in disappointment.
Thankfully, there were such people in the church for my daughter. I am proud to say that Emily is a semester away from completing her theological training and has been approved for parish ministry in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. She is living proof that God is still speaking to us, calling us and challenging us to listen. So let us all pray with confidence and joyous expectation, “Speak, Lord. Your servant is listening.”
In their present form, the books of First and Second Samuel are part of a historical narrative composed by an editor/author scholars refer to as the “Deuteronomist.” This story begins at Deuteronomy and extends through the end of II Kings. The Deuteronomist was clearly influenced by the prophets’ criticisms of the monarchy and its failure to lead Israel in faithfulness to Torah. This critical assessment of the monarchy finds expression in numerous ways throughout the greater narrative.
To a lesser degree, the narrative denigrates the priesthood of Eli and the shrine at Shiloh. This resting place of the Ark of the Covenant was evidently destroyed by the Philistines. Our lesson for Sunday may be, in part, designed to explain this catastrophe. In the prior chapter we learn that Eli’s sons “were scoundrels” who “had no regard for the Lord.” I Samuel 2:12-17. That is the reason given for the judgment God is about to bring on Shiloh and the house of Eli. Vss. 13-14. Yet I believe the principal concern here is to introduce Samuel as the prophet, priest and judge who will be the transitional figure for Israel’s move from a tribal confederacy loosely joined together around the shrine at Shiloh to a united monarchy with a new priesthood based at the temple in Jerusalem.
Samuel, you may recall, was the son born to formerly childless Hannah in response to her prayer. I Samuel 1:9-23. Hannah had vowed to dedicate any son she might be granted to the Lord’s service at Shiloh. True to her word, she brought young Samuel to Eli the high priest of Shiloh when he was weaned and Samuel began assisting Eli in his priestly duties. I Samuel 1:24-28. “The word of the Lord was rare in those days.” Vs. 1. So rare and uncommon were revelations of God that it took Eli three promptings through Samuel to figure out that God was attempting to address the young man. Once Eli realizes what is happening with Samuel, he instructs him how to respond. The message young Samuel receives is bad news for Eli and his sons. Eli must know this, but he still insists firmly that Samuel disclose everything he has heard from God. Vs. 17. Eli responds, “It is the Lord; let him do what seems good to him.” Vs. 18. (Really, what else could he have said?) Verses 19-21 summarize the outcome of this interchange. God still appears at Shiloh and speaks to Israel. But his word comes not through the established priesthood of Eli, but through the prophecy of the young Samuel.
Eli’s parenting skills might well have been lacking. Perhaps that is why his sons turned out to be “scoundrels.” Still, I believe Eli deserves credit for his openness to God’s word, even when that word foretold his own demise. It takes a courageous person to accept the end of his family line, the end of his ministerial heritage and the end of his religious tradition. Few pastors, congregational leaders or denominational officials are willing even to entertain the possibility that God might have no further use for mainline Protestantism and that its end has been decreed. We have trouble reckoning with the possibility that the old wineskins of our institutions might not be capable of containing the new wine of God’s kingdom. We tend to become so fixated on preventing the disintegration of the old skins that we miss out on the sweetness of the new wine. Eli, I believe, recognizes that the word declaring his own doom is a word of life for Israel. It is that word, not the house of Eli, not Trinity congregation or the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America that lasts forever.
This psalm defies categorization. In some respects, it resembles a lament. This label does not quite fit, though, because the psalmist does not seek salvation from his/her own enemies as much as the destruction of God’s enemies. Though the psalmist struggles with God’s imminence and transcendence, reducing his/her reflections to such mere abstractions does a disservice to the psalm. This is not an individual sharing his/her speculation about God’s nature with someone else. This is a prayer in which the psalmist addresses his/her God. The psalm arises from and is imbedded in a dynamic relationship between God and the psalmist. His/her questions and assertions arise out of his/her experience of covenant life with the God of Israel.
God has “searched” and “known” the psalmist. It is comforting that God is so intimately familiar with us-or is it? There are times I would prefer not to be aware of God’s presence or to think too deeply about it. Does God have to be present when I defecate, pick my nose and do other things that everyone does, but no one admits too? Can’t I take a vacation from God’s presence when I need to vent my most vindictive feelings, feelings that I know are unworthy of me, feelings that I am ashamed of? Is it possible to experience God’s presence not as sweet comfort, but as an oppressive weight? The psalmist seems somewhat ambivalent about God’s constant nearness. S/he seems to be asking, “Is there no escape from this all-encompassing reality that seems to have me hemmed in from all sides?”
Verses 13-18 praise God for God’s intimate involvement with the psalmist’s life from womb to tomb. “In your book were written all the days that were formed for me, when none of them yet existed.” Vs. 16. Taken literally and in isolation from its larger context, this verse appears to assert a strict determinism. Each day and everything in it is predetermined right down to the red tie I decided (or think that I decided) to wear today. But the nature of the psalmist’s relationship to his/her God suggests anything but a detached deity running a soulless machine. As the psalmist looks back on his/her life, s/he marvels at God’s activity in his/her life and all that God has done to bring him/her to this place and time. God has indeed given the final shape to each of the psalmist’s days, not as an author working with a fixed plot, but as a relational partner coaxing, persuading and nudging the psalmist toward deeper covenant living.
Some years ago a colleague of mine told me of a jarring experience she had conducting a funeral for a stillborn child. Using this psalm as her text, she assured the grieving parents of God’s tender care for their little one throughout the pregnancy and of God’s deep sorrow in his death. She spoke at length about the infinite value of this little life, short though it was. Following the service she was approached by an angry woman who through clenched teeth asked, “Do you have any idea how cruel, hurtful and unfeeling your words sound to a woman who has had an abortion?” She went on to accuse my friend of using the funeral to further the pro-life agenda and then stalked away before any response could be made.
I relate that story because it illustrates how thoroughly many of our scriptures have become captive to ideological disputes in our culture. I know that the last thing my friend would ever have wanted to do is address a political hot potato in the midst of a pastoral crisis like this one. Her only “agenda” was to speak words of comfort to a couple experiencing a traumatic loss and I have no doubt that they were in fact comforted. I am also convinced that abortion was not even at the furthest horizon of the psalmist’s thought process. It was obviously at the forefront of this individual’s thought process, however. So much so that it colored everything she heard my friend saying.
I am not sure how we deal with scriptural texts that have become almost “too hot to handle.” I believe that my friend was right to point out how this text affirms the value of the life that was lost to these grieving parents, God’s sharing in their sorrow and the significance of that life despite its never having seen the light of day. I believe it is altogether improper to use this psalm as ammunition in support of legislative measures regulating or criminalizing abortion. I reject having to choose between an ideology that reduces an unborn child to disposable tissue and one that simply equates termination of pregnancy with homicide. I recognize certain Bible passages have collected a lot of dirt from having been dragged through the culture wars. They must be spoken with care, sensitivity and compassion-but spoken nonetheless. I maintain that whether or not one has (or should have) a legal right to do a thing has no bearing on whether a disciple of Jesus should exercise that right. I reject the notion that issues, such as abortion, can only be discussed in terms of “rights,” especially within the Body of Christ. And that brings us to the next lesson.
As we will be hearing from Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians for the next four weeks, you might want to refresh your recollection concerning the background of that letter. To that end, I refer you to the Summary Article by Mary Hinkle Shore, Associate Professor of New Testament at Luther Seminary, St. Paul, M.N. on enterthebible.org.
As I have probably said too many times already, it is impossible to comprehend Paul without appreciating his understanding of the church as the Body of Christ. Again, this is not a metaphor. Paul truly believes that the church is the physical presence of the resurrected Christ animated by the Spirit of Christ. It is the objective of the Holy Spirit to form “the mind of Christ” in this body of believers. I Corinthians 2:16. That happens as believers learn to appreciate each other as indispensable members of Christ. Just as the human body instinctively protects an injured part, so the church surrounds with care and compassion the member that is hurting. Just as the action of one part of the human body affects the whole, so each member of the Body of Christ must measure his or her conduct by its effect on the Body of Christ. See I Corinthians 12:12-26.
Today’s reading tackles sexual immorality or, more specifically, the believer’s engagement of prostitutes. Before considering this particular issue, however, we need to remind ourselves that “Paul’s ethical counsels and appeals stand in letters which were addressed to particular congregations and were formulated in response to particular situations.” Furnish, Victor Paul, “A Paradigm for Ethics in First Corinthians,” Interpretation, Vol. 44, No. 2 (April 1990), p. 145. Therefore, “[o]ne must not presume that his judgments about particular issues, say, in Corinth, would be the same were he writing to Christians elsewhere. Indeed, insofar as Paul’s counsels were specifically applicable in the situations to which they were originally addressed, they cannot be specifically applicable in any other situation. Nor is it possible to extract or reconstruct from his specific counsels a set of general “ethical principles…” Ibid. 145-146 (emphasis in original). Instead, “one finds there not a “Pauline ethic,” but Paul the pastor/counselor, reflecting on how the truth of the gospel forms and reforms the lives of those who are in Christ, and urging his congregations to be conformed to that truth within the particulars of their own situations.” Ibid. 146 (emphasis in original).
Paul’s ethics therefore derive not from scriptural rules or prescriptions. That which is good builds up the Body of Christ-whether it comports with some other objective moral prescription or not. That which injures the Body of Christ or compromises its witness to Jesus is evil-even if there is scriptural precedent for it. For Paul, ethics are not about breaking or keeping rules. It comes down to each member of the church being so totally possessed by the mind of Christ that s/he instinctively does what is appropriate to protect and build up Christ’s Body.
Earlier on in chapter 6, Paul was taking the Corinthian believers to task for their litigiousness. When fellow members of the Body of Christ sue each other in pagan courts, their witness to Christ is horribly compromised. “Can it be,” asks Paul incredulously, “that there is no man among you wise enough to decide between members of the church?” I Corinthians 6:5. Indeed, the very fact that individual members have disputes that they are incapable of resolving between them is a defeat for the Body of Christ in which all members are to work in harmony for the sake of the whole Body. I Corinthians 6:7-8.
So now Paul takes the bull by the horns. “All things are lawful for me,” say Paul’s opponents. Is this really what they were saying or is Paul caricaturing their position by means of a reductio ad absurdum? Whatever the case may be, it appears that the issue of prostitution was a genuine one for believers. Bear in mind that prostitution was entirely legal in Corinth and often connected with pagan civic and religious ritual. While the practice was hardly universally condoned and often condemned by philosophers and moralists of many persuasions, prostitution was nevertheless common and altogether legal. That may well be, Paul replies. The law affords one many “rights.” You may have a right to sue. You may have the right to do all manner of things, including consortium with prostitutes. But legality is beside the point. Within the Body of Christ, it is never a matter of what is legal. It is always a matter of what is “helpful,” of what contributes to the health of the whole Body.
Though Paul could have drawn from a host of biblical passages condemning prostitution and fornication, he makes no such citation. Instead, Paul quotes the passage from Genesis following the creation of Eve from Adam’s rib stating that “the two became one flesh.” Genesis 2:24. Vs. 16. That being the case, how can one who is a member of Christ’s Body become one flesh with a prostitute? Clearly, given that most prostitutes were connected in some way with pagan ritual, such an act amounts to idolatry. Just as significantly, however, the life-giving and covenant building potential inherent in sexual intercourse is wasted on dead end casual encounters. Instead of building up “the Temple of the Holy Spirit,” the fornicator is desecrating that Temple by joining it to the temple of pagan gods. Vs. 19. “You are not your own,” says Paul. There can be no assertion of “My body, my choice.” “You were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body.” Vss. 19-20.
Obviously, Paul is addressing an issue that is non-existent for most of us. (I can’t recall the last time one of my parishioners reported being solicited by a temple prostitute). So, too, there are plenty of issues important to us that Paul’s prescription does not address directly: Cohabitation between adults not formally married; uncoerced sex between persons in a dating relationship and more. That is not to say, however, that Paul contributes nothing to our consideration of these issues. Clearly, Paul’s primary concern is how sexual conduct (any conduct for that matter) affects the church’s life and mission. Paul is also concerned about how such conduct affects other individual believers who are members of Christ’s Body. Finally, Paul would insist that we consider whether the conduct builds up the church. Sexual relationships, therefore, must be characterized by selfless love, covenant faithfulness and life-giving expression that builds up the Body of Christ. Based on these reflections, the author of the Letter to the Ephesians can state that the covenant between wife and husband ought to reflect the same covenant relationship God desires between Christ and the church. (BTW, it matters not one wit whether you characterize the husband as Christ and the wife as church or do it the other way around. There is no hierarchy in the kingdom of heaven. “Love” and “respect” are simply two sides of the same coin.)
Having already called Peter and Andrew to be his disciples the day before, Jesus decides to leave the Judean banks of the Jordan River and travel to Galilee. Jesus “found” Philip and called him to be his disciple. Philip, in turn, “found” Nathaniel and declared to him, “We have ‘found’ him of whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph.” Vs.45. Here again John’s use of language is very deliberate. The Greek word translated “found” in our English Bibles is “eureeka,” from which we get our expression: “Eureka!” meaning “I’ve got it!” This exclamation is attributed to the ancient Greek philosopher/scientist Archimedes. According to anecdotal legend, Archimedes observed one day how the water level rose as he stepped into the bath tub. This, in turn, led to his realization that the volume of water displaced must be identical to the part of his body submerged. Upon making the connection, he gave us that immortal exclamation. So the “finding” that is going on in this story amounts to more than just a random discovery. It is disclosure of a critical piece of the puzzle that is God’s redemptive intent for the world.
Philip, though identified as one of the Twelve disciples in the synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke), plays no active role anywhere else therein. By contrast, Philip is a major player in John’s gospel, being among the first disciples Jesus called. He is instrumental in bringing Nathaniel to Jesus. Vs.45. He is personally mentioned in the feeding of the five thousand (John 6:5-7), acts as an intermediary between Jesus and some Greeks wishing to see him (John 12:20-23) and takes an active part in one of Jesus’ major discourses (John 14:8-9). Nathaniel is not included among the twelve disciples in the synoptics. Though some strands of tradition identify him with Bartholomew, there is no solid textual or historical basis for so doing.
The fact that Philip describes Jesus to Nathaniel as the one about whom both Moses and the prophets wrote indicates that he has already concluded that Jesus is Israel’s messiah. The “law and the prophets” is frequently used shorthand for the whole of the Hebrew Scriptures in their entirety. See, e.g., Matthew 5:17; Luke 16:16; Acts 13:15; and Romans 3:21. It is quite understandable that Nathaniel would be skeptical about Philip’s claim. Nazareth of Galilee, unlike Bethlehem or the City of Jerusalem, is not the sort of place from which you would expect a great leader to arise, much less Israel’s messiah. Furthermore, according to John’s gospel, Jesus’ father, Joseph, is merely a local with no evident royal lineage. Philip bears a substantial burden of proof! Rather than attempting to argue Nathaniel out of his very reasonable objections, however, he simply invites him to “come and see.” Vs. 46.
“Behold, an Israelite,” Jesus declares. Vs. 47. This might well be translated, “Now here’s the real thing! A true Israelite.” While it is not exactly clear what Jesus meant by remarking that Nathaniel was without “guile,” the point is Nathaniel’s response. “How the hell do you know anything about me?” (very roughly translated). “I could be Jack-the-Ripper for all you know.” (Not actually said and a tad anachronistic but, hey, it captures the spirit of the conversation). Vs. 48. Jesus’ response is extremely important. He replies to Nathaniel, “When you were under the fig tree, I saw you.” Vs. 49. Jesus is not simply showing off his clairvoyance. He is making a messianic proclamation echoing the words of the prophet Micah: “but they shall sit every man under his vine and under his fig tree, and none shall make them afraid; for the mouth of the LORD of hosts has spoken.” Micah 4:4. In effect, Jesus is saying, “I know, Nathaniel, that you are of the New Israel, an Israelite without ‘guile’ (unlike Jacob!), because the messianic age has come.” This “word of the Lord of Hosts” is enough to convince Nathaniel. He confesses Jesus as both the King of Israel and the Son of God, both common messianic titles. Barrett, C.K., The Gospel According to John, 2nd Ed. (c. 1978 by Westminster Press) p. 186.
But there is more to Jesus than Nathaniel has guessed. “You will see heaven opened, and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.” Vs. 51. The reference here is to the story of “Jacob’s Ladder” narrated at Genesis 28:10-17. After waking from a dream in which angels ascended and descended from a heavenly ladder upon the rock where he lay, Jacob declared: “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.” Genesis 28:17. Jesus, then, is “the house of God” that will replace the temple with its holy of holies. John 2:19-21. Jesus is the “gate” through which the sheep will go in and out and find pasture. John 10:9. Keep your eye peeled and focused on Jesus. You haven’t seen anything yet!
BAPTISM OF OUR LORD
PRAYER OF THE DAY
Holy God, creator of light and giver of goodness, your voice moves over the waters. Immerse us in your grace, and transform us by your Spirit, that we may follow after your Son, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.
Though my mother died two years ago, we are still processing the personal effects she and Dad left behind. This last week my sister sent me a packet of pictures, letters and documents she thought I would appreciate and I did. Of particular interest was a letter to my parents from Pastor Schramm, the minister who baptized me. Evidently, my parents sent him a monetary gift in appreciation for performing my baptism. The letter reads as follows:
Dear Mr. & Mrs. Olsen
I received your gift of appreciation, and want to thank you kindly. I do not expect any remuneration for such services since they belong to the very essence of a pastor’s ministrations, but your sentiments of gratitude are greatly appreciated. May the Lord richly bless your efforts to keep your son in his baptismal grace and faith through patient and persistent application of the Savior’s redeeming & regenerating Gospel.
May the Redeemer’s loving presence pervade your home and hearts always.
Pastor E. R. Schramm.
I was baptized as an infant on February 19, 1956. We Lutherans do that all the time. In fact, we rarely baptize anyone who isn’t an infant. Though infant baptism appears to have deep roots in the practice of the church, there is no evidence of any such practice in the New Testament. That has always made us a tad defensive. When our Anabaptist sisters and brothers ask us our biblical basis for baptizing infants, the best we can do is point to a few passages which speak of whole “households” being baptized. After all, a household is often made up by people of all ages. It is entirely possible that there were infants in those households we read about in the New Testament. But we don’t send people to jail on the basis of mere possibilities and we shouldn’t ground the church’s sacramental practices in them either. If we are going to make the case for infant baptism, we must ground it in solid theological reasoning.
Lutherans maintain that infant baptism rests on God’s free grace. “You did not choose me,” says Jesus, “I chose you.” Infants come to faith the same way as adults: through the preaching of the Word and the sharing of the Sacraments. Baptism is God’s work designed to bring us to faith. It does not work in isolation from, but in concert with preaching and teaching the good word of the Gospel and through the Eucharistic meal. Baptism has both a vertical and horizontal dimension. Through baptism, we are reborn children of God. That is the vertical piece. Because the newly re-born in Christ (whatever age we might be) need nurture, care and upbringing, we are born into a family called church. That is the horizontal dimension. Infant baptism, and baptism generally for that matter, presupposes a church community that understands the gravity of the promises it makes to raise up the newly baptized in the Christian faith. Baptism is only intelligible when practiced within the context of a community that accepts the responsibility of keeping its children in “baptismal grace and faith through patient and persistent application of the Savior’s redeeming & regenerating Gospel,” as Pastor Schramm so aptly put it.
I believe that Lutheran baptismal theology is spot on. Lutheran baptismal practice, however, is nothing short of heretical. We regularly baptize children of folks who haven’t the least interest in raising those children in the church. We do it because we hope that we can win them over by being sweet and accommodating. We do it because their parents are long-time members whose noses would be put out of joint if we spoiled the baptismal festivities for their grandchildren. We do it because we fear being looked upon as judgmental should we have the audacity to exercise even a modicum of baptismal discipline. Consequently, promises made before God by parents, sponsors and congregations to bring newly baptized children to the house of God, teach them the fundamentals of the Christian faith and nurture them in their life of discipleship are broken with impunity by all parties alike. Baptism has become little more than an excuse for a party. Indeed, it was not so very long ago that I was called by someone who claimed a connection with our church and asked to drive out to the house to do a baptism. “And could you hurry?” The caller added. “We kind of want to get the party under way.” Though I have become fairly promiscuous with my baptismal practices in my old age, there are some things even I won’t do. Not to worry. I am sure that caller went straight to the Yellow Pages and found someone whose standards are lower even than mine.
In my youth, I took a harder line on baptism insisting that parents attend pre-baptismal courses and join the congregation before I would agree to perform a baptism. I made it clear to them that baptism was the doorway into a life of discipleship in community with God’s people. I made no bones about telling them that, if they had no desire for such a life for themselves or their child, they should not seek baptism. I thought I was right then and I still believe that, theologically, I was on target. But being right is seldom enough. However correct I was in what I said, what people heard was rejection. I discovered too late that the searing pain of being turned away drowned out what I hoped would be a salutary admonition. I discovered that I could not fix what is wrong with baptism in our church by tightening up our practices. Like it or not, I must work with what we have allowed baptism to become and trust that God’s words of promise will not be shouted down by our shameful practices.
The truth is, our loosey goosey approach to baptism is only a symptom of the larger problem. Our churches are failing to be churches, intentional communities of people dedicated to following Jesus. They have become spiritual filling stations where we go to get a measure of peace, a lift in our mood and enough faith to deal with life the rest of the week. We have been content to market a faith that helps us cope with what is rather than giving us a vision of what might be, a faith that asks little of us and returns even less. Small wonder, then, that we are reaping a harvest of indifference. A church that sees itself as a service organization existing for the benefit of its members cannot possibly support a robust sacramental understanding of the baptismal mystery. In such a watered down context, baptism ceases to become intelligible as anything more than a cute naming ceremony.
The solution? I am afraid it lies beyond any program, educational initiative or liturgical reform we can ever implement. Only an outpouring of the Holy Spirit can restore us. I can therefore only recommend that we pray heartily this Sunday, “Holy God…Immerse us in your grace, and transform us by your Spirit, that we may follow after your Son, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.”
To reiterate what I have said previously about Genesis and the other four books of the “Pentateuch,” namely, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy, most scholars are convinced that there are at least four main literary sources for these works, each of which narrates the drama of Israel’s origins. These four sagas were woven together and edited throughout the years of the Davidic dynasty to the period following the Babylonian Exile. In chronological terms, that would stretch from about 950 B.C.E. to 500 B.C.E. The first literary tradition, known as the “Jahwist,” is the earliest source. It probably dates from the years of the Davidic Dynasty, being a product of the Southern Kingdom of Judah. Next in chronological order would be the “Elowist” source. This literary tradition tells the story of Israel from the viewpoint of the Northern Kingdom of Israel and was likely brought to Judah by refugees escaping the Assyrian conquest and annexation of that nation around 721 B.C.E. The third contributor, known as the Deuteronomist, consisting of Deuteronomy and extending through the end of II Kings, is credited with joining the Jahwist and Elowist material into a single narrative. The final literary contributors, designated the “Priestly” source, rounded out the final form of the Pentateuch as we have it today incorporating ancient liturgical traditions preserved by the Jerusalem priesthood. This final editing was done sometime during or immediately after the Babylonian Exile ending in 538 B.C.E. For further elaboration, I invite you to read the online article, Documentary Hypothesis.
Our lesson, the opening to a marvelous poetic portrayal of creation, is a product of the Priestly author chiefly responsible for editing and contributing to the final form of the Pentateuch. This editor(s)/author(s) composed during the Babylonian Exile from 587 B.C.E. to about 530 B.C.E. Throughout this period Israel lived as an ethnic minority in a culture that was hostile to her faith in the Lord of the Exodus. The people were surrounded by and immersed in the religious symbols, practices and mores of their captors, whose decisive victory over Israel called into question the validity of their faith. The temptation to become assimilated into Babylonian society was strong. Should Israel continue to worship a God that seemed to have been overcome by the deities of Babylon? If Israel’s God was God, how could this God allow his holy city and temple to be destroyed?
The Babylonian Enûma Eliš saga relates how the earth was created out of a civil war between the gods and how humans were created from the divine blood shed in that conflict for the purpose of serving the victorious gods. The gods were ruled by the chief of these divine victors, Marduk, who in turn presided over a strict hierarchy. The Babylonian empire mirrored this heavenly hierarchy on earth with the emperor standing at the top of the social order. Under him were his officers, army and patrons. At the bottom of the pyramid were slaves-barely human and at the mercy of their owners whim. The empire was the gods will done on earth as in heaven according to the Babylonian creed.
The first chapter of Genesis constitutes an alternative creation narrative reflecting a very different understanding of divinity, the cosmos and the social order. The story describes creation as the sovereign act of one God whose merciful and compassionate care ensures stability and sustenance for all creatures. There is no hint of conflict or struggle in the act of creation. Everything is brought into existence by the sovereign word of God that declares everything made to be “good.” If you were to read further, you would discover that human beings do not spring up unintended from the blood of conflict, but are specially created in God’s image. They have not been made to serve as a race of slaves, but to be fruitful, multiply and rule over the good world God has made.
Of particular significance for the Baptism of Our Lord is the interplay between the “Spirit of God moving over the waters,” the speech of God crying “Let there be,” and the result: “and there was.” It is unfortunate that the lectionary folks did not pair this reading up with John 1:1-18, our gospel for last week. There is a clear correlation between these opening words of the Hebrew Scriptures and John’s prologue to his gospel in which he recites how the Word was in the beginning with God, was God and was the means by and through whom all things were made. John 1:1-3. It is fitting, too, that Jesus should be announced by John, the one who baptizes with water. Water, Word and Spirit are interwoven throughout both these readings. Baptism brings us terrifyingly close to “the deep” where all order, coherence and consciousness are dissolved. To be blunt, baptism kills us. Yet the waters that drown and destroy also hold the potential for life. Water is critical to life and makes up a substantial piece of what we are as creatures. We cannot live without water, nor can we live comfortably with it. The Spirit, however, moves these waters toward their creative pole. The word gives the formless deep a form. So what is dissolved in the waters of baptism is called forth newly constituted.
Most commentators suggest that this psalm is an Israelite poet’s adaptation of an ancient Phoenician hymn praising Baal-Hadad, the Canaanite storm god. E.g., Gaster, T.H., “Psalm 29,” JQR 37 (1946) pp. 54ff cited by Weiser, Artur, The Psalms, The Old Testament Library (c. 1962 S.C.M. Press, Ltd.) p. 261; see also Brueggemann, Walter, The Message of the Psalms, Augsburg Old Testament Studies (c. 1984 Augsburg Publishing House) p. 142. It is also possible to maintain that the psalm is a liturgical recital of God’s appearance to Israel on Mt. Sinai. Both views might be correct. Israel frequently borrowed liturgical and literary material from its neighbors in shaping its own worship traditions. Thus, a hymn originally praising the storm god in the wake of a particularly fierce weather event might have served as a template for this psalm memorializing God’s stormy appearance on Sinai.
The psalmist unashamedly attributes to Israel’s God the awe inspiring and often destructive effects of a storm. That is a little unnerving for us moderns who are squeamish about attributing anything to God that isn’t “nice.” Indeed, this psalm is particularly problematic for those of us affected by severe storms. Are these destructive storms God’s doing? Does God send them or just allow them to occur? Does it make any difference either way? Is it anymore comforting to believe that God just fell asleep at the wheel and allowed a hurricane to happen rather than to believe that God deliberately sent one? Has the universe gotten so far out of God’s hands that God is no longer able to prevent hurricanes, earthquakes and tsunamis?
I don’t pretend to have neat answers to all these questions. But perhaps our problem is rooted in our homocentric view of things. Indeed, I would go further and suggest that the problem may be with our “me” centered approach to faith. It seems to me that a lot of our prayers are exceedingly self-centered. We pray for good weather on our vacations-even in times when our farms are desperate for rain. We pray for an economic recovery without any thought to the economic, ecological and social havoc our economy wreaks upon the world. Even our prayers for others often have a strong streak of selfishness in them. As the father of a child with a chronic medical condition, a day does not go by that I don’t pray for her healing. Yet lately I have been wondering about my motives. Am I looking for a special miracle? By what right do I get to push to the head of the line of parents with sick children to receive such special treatment? Thanks to the benefits of medical treatment afforded through insurance, my daughter is able to live a relatively normal and healthy life despite her condition. So shouldn’t any miracle go to a child without these benefits? I find that too often my prayers do not venture beyond my own needs, concerns and the small circle of people in my small world.
Perhaps this psalm gives us some perspective. The psalmist does not begin his or her prayer with a request that God stop the storm or steer it in some other direction. The psalm begins with praise, awe and reverence for God. As Jesus taught his disciples, that is where all prayer needs to begin. Recall that in both of the creation stories from Genesis, the world was created first. In the first chapter of Genesis, the earth and all its creatures were created and declared good. Then human beings were created to rule over and care for the earth. Likewise in the second chapter of Genesis: the earth was created and God planted a garden in the earth. Then God created human beings to tend and care for the garden. The message is clear. It’s not all about us. The world was not designed to be a twenty-first century playground that is so well padded and equipped with safety features that no kid could ever possibly get hurt-or have any fun either. No, the world is far more like the way playgrounds used to be-a place where you can really play. It pains me to no end that my grandchildren will probably never know the ecstasy of rocketing half way to the sky on a real swing set. Nor will they ever experience the dizzying high you could get from one of those merry-go-rounds that we used to crank up to warp speed. Our public parks have been cleansed of all such unacceptable risks. The attorneys and insurance underwriters who have taken over our lives have determined that fun is just too dangerous for kids.
But don’t get me started on that. We were talking about the psalm and the fact that we are not the center of God’s universe. As C.S. Lewis once pointed out, God is not a tame lion. God is not “safe” and neither is the world God made. The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, (c. 1950 by Estate of C.S. Lewis; pub. by Macmillan Publishing Co., Inc.) pp. 73-74. There is no room in the Bible or in real life for a wimpy, weak kneed religion that longs for a “nice” god. You can get hurt on this planet and tragically so. But for all that, the earth is a good place to be. It’s a place where you can have real fun. Beauty the likes of which you see in the ocean, in the storm and on the top of Sinai necessarily has an element of terror. The psalmist doesn’t hide in the storm shelter and plead with God not to be so scary. The psalmist praises God for this awesome display of power and rejoices in the beauty, wonder and terror of creation. This is the glorious world God made and the stage on which God acts. The psalmist doesn’t complain about its dangers. S/he prays instead that Israel will find the courage to live boldly and faithfully in this grand universe. Anybody who whines about bad weather and wishes that God had made a safer planet has never been on a real swing!
Last Sunday John pointed out to us that God’s creative word became flesh. God entered fully into the adventure of being human in a creation filled with mystery, wonder, beauty and terror. Baptism into the name of this Triune God is to join in the adventure of becoming fully and truly human.
It appears that a distinct community of John the Baptist’s disciples continued to exist well into the New Testament period. Whatever the baptism of John was all about, it surely did not include the name of Jesus. Thus, it is not surprising that, upon becoming associated with the church, these disciples of John should be baptized into Jesus Christ. Of what, then, did this new baptism consist? Much energy has been expended in speculation over how baptism might have been practiced in the early church and whether a Trinitarian formula was used or merely the name of Jesus. I am not particularly interested in those arguments. What we know is that the Trinitarian baptismal formula was around from at least the writing of Matthew’s gospel toward the end of the 1st Century. There isn’t a scrap of textual evidence to support the spurious supposition that this formula was a later addition to the text. Moreover, the church has consistently spoken of “baptism into Christ” throughout history without implying anything less than fully Trinitarian baptism. There seems to me no sound theological reason to baptize in anything less than God’s Trinitarian Name. As to the baptism of the believers in our lesson “into the name of Jesus,” I agree with St. Basil:
“Let no one be misled by the fact of the apostle’s frequently omitting the name of the Father and of the Holy Spirit when making mention of baptism, or on this account imagine that the invocation of the names is not observed. As many of you, he says, as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ; and again, as many of you as were baptized into Christ were baptized into his death. For the naming of Christ is the confession of the whole, showing forth as it does the God who gave, the Son who received, and the Spirit who is, the unction.” De Spiritu Sancto, 12:28.
I must admit that I don’t know what theological sense to make out of the chronology in this brief snippet from Acts. Preaching comes first; then comes baptism and after that the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. I don’t know how a person can receive the Word of God without the aid of the Spirit, nor do I understand how one receives the Spirit apart from the Word and baptism. But one of those things or both seems to have occurred here. Rather than trying to make theological sense out of this passage, I prefer simply to take it as a warning against becoming too dogmatic about how faith and the Holy Spirit work. As I said before, I have performed more than a few baptisms where there appeared to be little in the way of proper motivation or even openness to faith. I don’t know what the outcome will be, but that is really out of my hands. When you invoke the Holy Spirit, you are by definition placing matters in hands beyond your own. In a sense, I suppose I am hoping that what happened in this text will eventually occur for these families, namely, that the Holy Spirit will fall upon them-however belatedly.
Mark tells us less about Jesus’ baptism than any of the other gospels except for John who tells us nothing about it. Mark’s introduction to John the Baptist, though brief, is pregnant with suggestive imagery. The Baptist appears “in the wilderness.” As Commentator Morna Hooker points out, Israel’s long sojourn in the wilderness became a metaphor for her captivity in Babylon and hence associated with the idea of a new Exodus. Hooker, Morna D., The Gospel According to Saint Mark, Black’s New Testament Commentaries, (c. 1991 by Morna D. Hooker, pub. Hendrickson Publishers, Inc.) p. 36. Some of the Hebrew prophets looked back to these years spent in the wilderness on the way to the Promised Land as an ideal period. Ibid. In the wilderness, Israel had none but God to rely upon and so her relationship with God was naturally closer. See Jeremiah 2:2; Jeremiah 31:2; Hosea 2:14; Hosea 9:10; and Amos 5:25. From this outlook there developed a strong conviction that final salvation for Israel would have its beginning in the wilderness where the messiah would first appear. Cranfield, C.E.B., The Gospel According to Saint Mark, The Cambridge Greek Testament Commentary (c. 1959 by Cambridge University Press) p. 42.
Mark’s description of John is filled with images pointing to his prophetic role. His camel hair robe might suggest the “hairy mantle” associated with professional prophets in Zechariah 13:4. Mark’s description of John’s leather belt is an echo of the description of Elijah in II Kings 1:8. By this time Elijah’s role as harbinger of the messianic age was deeply ingrained in Jewish consciousness. See Malachi 4:5-6. Mark’s audience needed no further explicit citations to scripture to understand that John was to be understood, if not as Elijah himself, then surely as a prophet fulfilling Elijah’s eschatological mission. It is in this light that we must understand his declaration that “after me comes he who is mightier than I, the thong of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie.” Vs. 8. The point here is that John is merely the prophet who goes before the Lord preparing the Lord’s way.
Yet I think it far too simplistic to assume that Mark’s only or even chief purpose is to undermine the importance of John the Baptist whose community might still have been in existence competing with the church for Israel’s allegiance. John plays a critical literary/theological role in Mark’s gospel. So far from detracting from Jesus, his ministry sets the stage for Jesus’ revealing. That is where the baptism comes in. Again, I am not convinced that the early church was “embarrassed” by Jesus’ baptism under John. Whatever ecclesiastical embarrassment there might have been over this event arose much later as a result of distorted notions of what constitutes “sin,” truncated understandings of “repentance” and inadequate models of atonement that could not accommodate Jesus’ undergoing a baptism of repentance. Yet once repentance is understood as a turning toward God, something Jesus did throughout his life, there is nothing inconsistent in Jesus undergoing a baptism of repentance. In our case, repentance always means turning from sin. But that is a consequence of our turning toward God, not a precondition.
We began the church year with a reading from Isaiah in which the prophet cries out: “O that thou wouldst rend the heavens and come down…” Isaiah 64:1. In Sunday’s gospel that plaintive cry is answered. “And when [Jesus] came up out of the water, immediately he saw the heavens opened and the Spirit descending upon him like a dove; and a voice came from heaven, ‘Thou art my beloved Son; with thee I am well pleased.’” Vs. 10-11. The Greek verb translated here as “opened” (“schizo”) actually means to “rend” as does the Hebrew equivalent in the above Isaiah quote. In Jesus God has torn open the heavens allowing the Holy Spirit to flood into the world. God’s reign has been let loose. The new wine is spilling into the old wine skins and splitting them at the seams. Better buckle your seat belt and put on your crash helmet. This is going to be a wild ride!