Archive for October, 2015
ALL SAINTS DAY
PRAYER OF THE DAY: Almighty God, you have knit your people together in one communion in the mystical body of your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord. Grant us grace to follow your blessed saints in lives of faith and commitment, and to know the inexpressible joys you have prepared for those who love you, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.
I have been reading a lot lately about young people from Europe and North America leaving everything and traveling to the Middle East to fight for ISIS, Al Qaeda and other such organizations. We can rant and rail all we want about how awful these terrorist groups are and wonder aloud why young people are drawn to them. But perhaps the more pertinent question for the church is why these young people are not drawn to leave everything and follow Jesus-as did the first disciples and generations of disciples after them. Say what you will about the terrorists, but it seems obvious to me that they are communicating a vision sufficiently compelling to inspire young people to to leave behind their comfortable middle class existences to live for it fight for it and even die for it. Mainline Protestantism typically does not offer anything of the kind. Worship in our culture is not worth sacrificing the Super Bowl, much less our lives. Our churches don’t demand sacrifice from our members. Instead, we woo them with programs, services and entertainment, then beg them for contributions and plead with them to volunteer their time to support us and our programs. Not surprisingly, the response we get is just as tepid as the bland consumer faith we are marketing. When you market to consumers, consumers are what we get. Consumers only consume. It’s what they do. They are savvy enough to know a good deal when they see it. If you can get assurance that the church will be there to baptize, marry and bury you for the price of showing up once in a blue moon and tossing a few dollars into the collection plate, that’s a fair enough exchange. Why would any informed consumer pay more?
Trouble is, the church is not called to market to consumers. The church is called to recruit saints. To borrow a motto from the United States Marines, Jesus is looking for a few good people. Make no mistake about it. Jesus loves all people. Jesus ministers to all people. Jesus never turns away anyone in need. But when it comes to choosing his disciples, Jesus is selective. Jesus does not want as disciples those who are not prepared to part with everything they own, even to the point of becoming homeless. Mark 10:17-22; Matthew 8:18-20; Luke 9:57-58. Jesus will not have disciples who put even family obligations over loyalty to him and the reign of God he proclaims. Mark 3:31-35; Matthew 8:21-22; Luke 9:59-62. Following Jesus means loving your enemy-even the ones that strike you on the cheek, take everything you have, blow up your buildings and behead you. Matthew 5:38-48. Discipleship requires that we go out to meat ISIS armed only with prayer. “But, pastor, with all due respect, those people would just kill us!” That’s typically the response I get to these observations and my standard reply is, “Yep, you got that right.” Jesus calls his disciples to take up the cross and stand with him in the line of fire. If you are squeamish about getting shot, beheaded or nailed to a cross, discipleship is not your line of work. Sainthood is not for whimps.
Now my Lutheran readers are squirming in their seats at this point. So let me assure you all that I am not preaching “works righteousness” here. Salvation is God’s work from beginning to end. Contrary to what our ELCA logo might be taken to imply, God doesn’t need our hands or anything else from us to get God’s work done. I side altogether with Martin Luther who tells us that the kingdom of God comes without our prayers-and without our programs, activities, witness, advocacy and all our preachy-screechy social statements. I repeat: the kingdom will come without you’re doing a damn thing. But is that what you want? Do you really want to spend your life on the sidelines as God’s new creation breaks into our old world? Would you be content to be a mere spectator at the World Series if you had a chance to play in the game? Do you want just to sit on the curb, eat your funnel cake and watch as the saints come marching in, or do you want to “be in that number”? No, God does not need us to bring to birth the new creation in which all things will be reconciled in Christ. But God has graciously invited us to participate in and be a part of that great work. God invites us to start living eternally now. That’s worth living for, sacrificing for and dying for. I don’t know about you, but I want in on this.
To sum up briefly: I believe many young people (people of all ages, for that matter) are hungry for a vision worthy of their life’s dedication. The reign of God Jesus proclaims in which all the walls of animosity dividing humanity and the ancient hatreds that keep us at each other’s throats are finally swallowed up in a love stronger than death is precisely that. A life that is shaped by God’s future lived in the present under the sign of the cross is a life well lived. It is what we call sainthood.
As I have pointed out before, the book of the prophet Isaiah is regarded by most Hebrew Scripture scholars to be the work of three different prophets. Isaiah 1-39 is attributed in the main to Isaiah the prophet who lived and prophesied during the 8th Century B.C.E.. during the reigns of Judean kings Jotham, Ahaz and Hezekiah. Isaiah 40-55 is attributed to a prophet who preached toward the end of the Babylonian exile of the Jews, declaring to them God’s forgiveness and God’s promise to lead them back from exile to their homeland in Palestine. Isaiah 55-65 contain the words of a prophet addressing the Jews who in fact returned to Palestine and were struggling to rebuild their community under difficult circumstances. But this neat three part division is still a little too simplistic. All three prophetic collections underwent editing, revisions and additions in the course of composition. Consequently, there are many sections of First Isaiah that probably belong to a prophet speaking to a much later time. It appears that the words from our lesson, which fall within the chapters attributed to the Isaiah of the 8th Century B.C.E., are more likely from the time of disillusionment that developed in the post-exilic setting of the 6th Century. Some commentators date these verses or fragments of them as late as the first third of the 2nd Century B.C.E. e.g., Kaiser, Otto, Isaiah 13-39, The Old Testament Library (c.1974 by SCM Press, Ltd.) p. 179. Others maintain that our reading, or at least parts of it, can be attributed to the Isaiah of the 8th Century B.C.E. See Mauchline, John, Torch Bible Paperbacks (c. 1962 by SCM Press, Ltd.) p. 24.
The lesson is a small portion of a larger section beginning at Chapter 24 where the prophet announces that the Lord will lay waste the earth and that all people will be caught up in its desolation. Isaiah 24:1-13, Isaiah 24:17-23. This woeful dirge is punctuated by a psalm of praise calling for the earth to acknowledge and glorify the majesty of God. Isaiah 24:14-16. This desolation is of cosmic proportions. Chapter 25 begins with a psalm of thanksgiving to the Lord for God’s just judgment upon the world rulers and his protection for the poor and the needy. Isaiah 25:1-5. It is for this remnant, the poor and the needy who have been ruthlessly oppressed by the kings of the earth, that “the Lord of Hosts will make for all peoples a feast of fat things….” Vs. 6. This judgment for the poor and oppressed includes all nations and peoples, but it is a particularly joyful event for Israel because it demonstrates that God is indeed the very God she has been faithfully serving and in whom she has been placing her hope. No wonder, then, that the people of Israel cry out: “Lo, this is our God; we have waited for him, that he might save us.” Vs. 9. This passage is a bold declaration that Israel’s hope in the justice and salvation of God is not misplaced. The smart money is on the God of Israel!
Notice that Israel has played no active part in this saving work of God. She has only waited patiently for it. I have to say that this grates on me a bit. Having come of age in a generation that thought it would change the world for the better and which placed a high value on social activism, the notion of sitting and waiting for salvation feels grossly irresponsible. Yet when it comes to God’s kingdom, there is nothing else that we can do. God will establish peace and justice in God’s own time. The temptation we face is impatience. We want the kingdom now and we are prone to take all the military, legislative and revolutionary short cuts necessary to get there. We don’t have time to wait for love to persuade. We don’t have enough patience for the long and difficult work of reconciliation. Prayer seems so weak and ineffectual compared to action. So we push ahead with our own notions of peace and justice, employing our tactics of “shock and awe” to get the job done quickly and efficiently. But that is not the way of our patient God who has all eternity to work with. Changing hearts and minds takes time-a lot of time. God is willing to take all the time in the world to prepare every heart for the coming of his kingdom. Jesus promised that it was his Father’s good pleasure to give us the kingdom. He never said it would be done within the first hundred days of his administration.
There has been much scholarly speculation about this ancient hymn of praise. It has often been thought that this psalm is a liturgy for the annual procession with the Ark of the Covenant commemorating David’s movement of the Ark to Jerusalem. (II Samuel 6). Rogerson, J.W. & McKay, J.W., Psalms 1-50, The Cambridge Bible Commentary (c. 1977 by Cambridge University Press) p. 108. This is possible, but there is no direct evidence in the Hebrew Scriptures that such a ceremony existed in Israel. Other commentators suggest that this song might have been sung at the climax of the autumn festival. See Weiser, Artur, The Psalms, The Old Testament Library (c. 1962 by S.C.M. Press, Ltd.) p. 232. It is probably safe to say at least that this psalm is a worship liturgy of some sort and that it dates back to the Judean monarchy and perhaps even to the time of David and Solomon. If the psalm does go back to the time of David, then the “holy place” (vs.3) is obviously not the Temple (which was built after David’s death by his son, Solomon), but a tent-like shrine or tabernacle. The “hill of the Lord” is Mt. Zion. Vs. 3. The psalm reflects both dimensions of Israelite worship-the coming of God to the sanctuary and the coming of the worshiper into God’s presence there. Because “all the earth” belongs to the Lord (vs. 1), God is not confined to the sanctuary or bound to any holy place. The doors must “lift up” their heads that “the King of Glory may come in.” vs. 7. It is absurd to imagine that any humanly constructed sanctuary could contain the God who laid the foundations of the world. Yet God in his mercy and compassion for Israel voluntarily comes into the sanctuary to meet those who come to worship.
“Who shall ascend the hill of the Lord? And who shall stand in his holy place?” vs. 3. The answer to this question in many of the ancient Near Eastern religious traditions would be strict measures of cultic purity such as ritual washing, fasting from certain foods, abstinence from sexual relations, freedom from disease or physical defect, etc. Indeed, these kinds of cultic purity requirements for worship are found in the books of Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy. But here the proper preparations for worship are ethical. Honesty and integrity trump external cultic preparations.
What, then, does this psalm tell us about worship? First, worship begins with acknowledging that “the earth is the Lord’s.” This has profound geopolitical, ecological and ethical implications, challenging our accepted notions of land ownership and national sovereignty.
“Get off my land!”
“Who says it’s your land?”
“I have the deed to it”
“Where did you get the deed?”
“From my father.”
“Where did he get it?”
“From his father.”
Where did he get it?”
“He fought for it!”
“Well, then, I’ll fight you for it!”
This little interchange goes to illustrate the obvious: If we go back far enough, we invariable discover that we are living on land our ancestors took away from somebody else. So even if you assume that whatever land is not occupied is up for grabs, it has been several millennia since there has been any such land available for the taking. Claims of land ownership are therefore intrinsically morally suspect. Moreover, the psalmist makes clear that the earth, every inch of it, belongs to the Lord. Even the promised land was not given to Israel in any absolute sense. Life in the land of Canaan was to be lived in compliance with Israel’s covenant with God. When Israel began treating the land as her own, living contrary to the covenant and exploiting the land and her own people, God expelled her from the land.
Second, the earth is God’s living creation. It is not an inert ball of resources we are free to exploit at our convenience to serve the national interests of whatever nation state we happen to belong to. If you go back to the second chapter of Genesis, the earth was created first. Only then did God create the human being to tend and care for the Garden God planted in Eden. Genesis 2:15. The message is clear: It’s not all about us. The earth is God’s garden and we are here not as owners, but as gardeners. One objective of worship, then, is to re-orient our hearts and minds to accept God’s ownership of all creation and our privileged position, not as one of domination, but of careful stewardship and responsible care.
Revelation is by far the most abused, misunderstood and misquoted book in the entire Bible. It has been an inexhaustible source of speculation for people who understand it as the key to figuring out how and when the world will come to an end. This is not the place to embark on a lengthy discussion of the origin, purpose and meaning of Revelation. Nevertheless, I would urge you to read Revelation 2-3 in addition to the lesson for this Sunday. There you will find seven letters dictated by Jesus to the seven churches of Asia Minor in a vision to the author, John of Patmos. The letters reflect the struggles of a church under varying degrees of persecution. Some of them face prosecution and death. Others face more subtle social pressures to compromise with cultural ethical norms and pagan religious practices. This is a church struggling for survival in a hostile society. The Roman Empire’s oppressive cruelty is given expression in the lurid images of beasts, demons and prostitutes employed by John. The imagery used in describing the Lamb of God, the heavenly court and the angelic forces of God all stretch the imagination to the breaking point, but affirm the ultimate victory of the Lamb who was chose to be slain rather than prevail through violence over against the violent demonic forces at work in the Empire. Thus, Revelation is not so much a key to the future as it is a word of encouragement and hope for disciples of Jesus who face suffering and persecution in every age. For those of you wishing to understand more about this strange and wonderful book and its proper overall interpretation, I refer you to an excellent article produced by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. You might also want to check out the Summary Article by Craig R. Koester, Professor of New Testament at Luther Seminary, St. Paul, MN. on enterthebible.org.
Our lesson for Sunday constitutes the climax of Revelation. John witnesses the descent of the Holy City, the New Jerusalem from God to earth. This is highly significant. Note well that John does not describe Christians “going to heaven” to be with God, but God coming to dwell with God’s people. The words “Behold, the dwelling of God is with people,” reflects the heartfelt desire expressed by the Lord throughout the Law and the Prophets. It has never been God’s intent to destroy this world and replace it with a better one. Indeed, God specifically rejected that course of action in the story of Noah’s Flood. (See Genesis 8:20-22). Instead, God makes all things new.
There is both continuity and discontinuity in the new creation-just as there was continuity and discontinuity between the man Jesus the disciples had come to know throughout his ministry with them and the resurrected Christ who appeared to them on Easter Sunday. The Resurrected one was Jesus, to be sure. Yet he was not merely a resuscitated corpse. This resurrected Jesus was alive in a new and powerful sense that placed him beyond the reach of death. His ascension to the right hand of the Father as witnessed by the gospel of Luke does not make Jesus more distant, but renders him even more intimately present than ever before. In the same way, the New Jerusalem is not a spiritual shadow of the dying physical city. Rather, it is a resurrected city that is more intensely alive precisely because it is now animated by the very presence of God in its midst.
I think that the hope contained in this lesson is very well expressed by Professor Brian Peterson of Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary:
“We do not create this new heaven and earth; the New Jerusalem comes down from God, and thus comes only as a gift. We can discern its outline already in the gospel of Jesus, crucified, and risen. Because God is with us already — in the proclamation of the Gospel, at the table of our Lord, and in the Spirit filling the church — we are witnesses to that coming new city, with our words and with our lives. We carry gracious hints of its coming when we live out costly love for one another (John 13), and when we practice startling welcome to those otherwise left outside (Acts 11).”
Unlike Matthew, Mark and Luke, John’s gospel is not divided into bite size readings that contain numerous nuggets of insight. John takes his sweet time spinning a yarn. He gives you numerous clues and hints to where he is going that only become clear a chapter or two later when he springs the punch line. I guess that is why John does not get his own year in the lectionary as do his fellow gospel writers. But perhaps the problem is more with us than with John. We are the ones with the short attention spans. We are the ones who begin to glance at our watches when we perceive that worship is not proceeding on schedule. We are a generation in a hurry. As a result, we miss a lot of living as we dart from one point to another with a third point on our mind.
If we begin at the start of Chapter 11, we hear first that Jesus was told of Lazarus’ illness while in Galilee, but chose to remain there another two days before beginning his trip to Judah were Lazarus was. Consequently, Lazarus was dead long before Jesus arrived. Why would Jesus do such a thing? Granted, raising a man from death is a lot more spectacular than simply healing a sick one. But is that any way to treat someone you love? Whatever the reason for his remaining, it is clear that Jesus moves on his own time. He will not let himself be governed by emergencies. He simply refuses to be busy. That must have been the Jesus quality that impressed John most. His gospel is anything but rushed. We proceed leisurely from Galilee to the outskirts of Bethany and more leisurely still from there to the tomb of Lazarus. Jesus is in no hurry to his work and makes clear that what he is about to do will be for the benefit of those around him who are to witness this great miracle.
Jesus wept. Vs. 35. Again, I am at a loss to understand why. I expect that Jesus knew that he was about to raise Lazarus. So why weep? I am not convinced that Jesus was weeping for Lazarus. His concern appears to be for the people around him. He is grieved that Martha, while she mouths faith in a future resurrection in the sweet by and by, does not see in him the very presence of resurrection and life. Jesus is grieved at Mary’s sorrow and her seeming lack of even Martha’s level of hope. Jesus is grieved at the mourners who have nothing to offer Mary and Martha but sympathy. He is grieved that death is roaming about the neighborhood, making its presence felt like a bully no one dares even to mention, much less challenge. Jesus needs to demonstrate in a concrete way that he is the resurrection and the life, that death has no power over him and that he is able to offer life to those enslaved by the fear of death. Hence, the raising of Lazarus.
This story is pivotal for John’s gospel. The raising of Lazarus provokes the meeting of the Sanhedrin at which the decision is made to kill Jesus. John 11:45-53. The irony here is that Jesus is to be put to death for giving the gift of life. The Sanhedrin will also plot to take the life of Lazarus as his presence constitutes ongoing testimony to Jesus. This episode expands on and amplifies the prologue to John’s gospel in which it is said of Jesus that “In him was life and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it.” John 1:4-5 Neither by killing Jesus nor by murdering Lazarus will the darkness be able to overcome the light of life.
Among other things, saintliness is a life that is not driven. It is not driven by every occurrence claiming to be urgent. It is not driven by fear of what others might think or how they may judge what we do or say. It is not driven by the fear of death. The life of a saint consists of following Jesus at his own leisurely pace focusing on what is significant rather than on everything that seems urgent. This is a wonderful text on which to preach. I only wonder if I have the patience for it!
PRAYER OF THE DAY: Gracious Father, we pray for your holy catholic church. Fill it with all truth and peace. Where it is corrupt, purify it; where it is in error, direct it; where in anything it is amiss, reform it; where it is right, strengthen it; where it is in need, provide for it; where it is divided, reunite it; for the sake of your Son, Jesus Christ, our Savior, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.
Is the Reformation over? For over a decade now I have been asking myself that question each year as Reformation rolls around and I struggle to come up with something fresh to say about it. What, exactly, are we trying to reform now that we are altogether exiled and living independently from the Roman Catholic Church? What is left for us protestants to protest? Are we not a little like the angry ex-spouse at the bar stool ranting to anyone who will listen about the hurt, indignity and injustice s/he experienced in his/her crappy marriage-even after the divorce has long been finalized and the other spouse has remarried and moved on? After five centuries, isn’t it time we got over ourselves?
Of course, as everyone who has been through the process knows, a divorce is never quite final no matter what the court papers say. Like it or not, the relationships in which we have lived are part of our stories. They have shaped us, for better or for worse. We can perhaps shape the meaning and significance they will have for our lives going forward, but the past cannot be erased. The very fact that we continue to identify ourselves as “protestant” betrays the enduring connection we have to our Roman Ex.
Moreover, there is an obvious problem with my divorce analogy. Divorce is not an option for the Body of Christ. The outcome of the Reformation was, in biblical terms, more analogous to an attempted amputation than divorce. I say “attempted” because the church is “one” just as it is holy, catholic and apostolic-whether we like it or not. At least that is what Roman Catholics and most protestants confess in the Nicene Creed. Accordingly, we protestants have vacillated between insisting on the one hand that the one, holy, catholic and apostolic church inheres within our own particular denominations and that the rest of Christendom is less than truly Christian, and on the other maintaining that, in spite of all evidence to the contrary, we are somehow still one church. I think the lack of credibility for both positions undermines more than anything else our evangelical witness in the 21st Century. After centuries of defining ourselves in terms of our differences from Roman Catholicism and the various other flavors of Protestantism in a culture that was at least nominally Christian, Lutherans are finding it difficult to make themselves understood to a population that simply doesn’t give a flying fruitcake for the sordid details of our dysfunctional ecclesiastical relationships. So far from reflecting “the wonderful diversity within the Body of Christ,” as one colleague recently characterized it, the bewildering variety of churches in every American town-often within a stone’s throw of each other-simply feeds the American perception of religion as one more consumer commodity sold under numerous brands, styles and flavors. Your choice of church (if any) is of no more consequence than your choice of the Ford Fusion over the Chevy Spark.
There is, indeed, a growing hostility in our nation to the very idea of passing our faith on to the next generation. At the far end of the spectrum is scientist and commentator Richard Dawkins who insists that religious indoctrination is a form of child abuse. While I suspect that few Americans subscribe to that extreme view, I have met a good many who have given up on catechesis, leaving their children free to choose whether or not to adopt the faith of the family or any faith for that matter. As Professor Stanley Hauerwas points out, however, few of these parents take the same sanguine view when it comes to deciding what, if any, affiliation their children will have with the United States of America. Approaching the End: Eschatological Reflections on Church, Politics and Life, (c. 2013 by Stanley Hauerwas, pub. by Wm. Eerdmans Publishing Co.) p. 88. Our cultural practices and our entire educational system are geared toward producing good American citizens. I suspect that parents casting doubt upon this enterprise are looked upon with no little degree of suspicion. Raising a child to be religiously neutral is open minded. Raising him or her to be less than completely loyal to America is treason.
So why is indoctrination of a child from infancy into an “American” identity any less narrow minded and abusive than raising him or her a Christian, Jew or Muslim? If it is abusive to teach an impressionable child to recite the Lord’s Prayer, isn’t it just as abusive to teach the same child to say the Pledge of Allegiance? I don’t believe this has much to do with the rightness or wrongness of indoctrinating children. I cannot imagine how anyone can raise a child without indoctrinating him or her into some value system filled with preconceived assumptions the child might come to question later on in life, whether religious or not. Simply put, our American identity runs far deeper than our Christian identity. We will gladly and proudly send our children to kill and to die for America, but we won’t pull them out of soccer practice to worship the Prince of Peace. The church ought to be testifying in word and deed to the supremacy of God’s reign over the nations (America included); calling people to obey Jesus above all other claims to loyalty (including loyalty to America); and inviting our neighbors to pledge their ultimate allegiance to the one, holy, catholic and apostolic communion of saints that transcends every other societal demand (including the demand for loyal American citizenship). It is difficult to make that witness, however, when the one, holy, catholic and apostolic church looks to all the world like a string of competing boutiques in a typical American shopping mall.
So I ask again, is the Reformation over? I am not convinced that we are any closer today than we were five centuries ago to recognizing the centrality of grace in the church. That goes for us protestants every bit as much as for our sisters and brothers in the Roman Catholic communion. We are still too fixated on rules, structures, traditions and practices of human origin that dehumanize us rather than form in us the mind of Christ. We still suffer from the afflictions of self-righteousness, pride and arrogance. We need to be reminded still that we are redeemed by God’s grace alone through Christ alone by faith alone. But getting the good news right is only half the equation. The other half is proclaiming it to the world. It is becoming increasingly clear that the church’s witness to reconciliation of all things in Christ is being fatally compromised by the lack of reconciliation within itself. So maybe the Reformation is not so much over as it is in need of reorientation. The next wave of reformation must focus on repairing the damage left in the wake of the first.
That said, I have a hard time imagining how to begin such a movement. I am afraid it will take a little more than nailing a document to the door of a church. I also doubt that our anemic efforts at ecumenism will be able to overcome our fierce individualistic consumerism. We are Burger King people. We are too set on “having it our way” and having it now. Most of us can’t last long in a church that doesn’t instantly meet our institutional, ideological, programmatic and stylistic needs. Suffering with one another’s perceived shortcomings, praying and working patiently and tirelessly for change, allowing God to take God’s own good time healing the church’s divisions is not in our cultural DNA. Churches, like fast food joints, are a dime a dozen. If you don’t like the one you happen to be in, there are plenty more to choose from. If none of them appeals, you can always start your own. Choose whatever feels right. It’s what we do.
Though we will pray this Sunday for God to reunite the church, I wonder whether, like James and John in last week’s gospel lesson, we do not know what we are asking. Our lesson from Jeremiah is a sobering reminder that God must sometimes employ drastic measures to create in us a new heart. It took a brutal conquest by the Babylonian empire and decades of exile to form the covenant people we now know as the Jews. Perhaps the same drastic measures will be required to reform the church. I fear that, in order to heal the wounds in Christ’s Body, God will have no alternative than to make us so small and inconsequential and to place us in such a hostile environment that we will no longer be able to escape our need for one another. That isn’t what any of us want, but it might be what we need. Even so, Come Lord Jesus.
For a brief but excellent summary of the Book of Jeremiah see the Summary Article by Terence E. Fretheim, Elva B. Lovell Professor of Old Testament at enterthebible.org. Recall that Jeremiah prophesied immediately before and for some time after the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple by the Babylonians in 587 B.C.E. This particular oracle in Sunday’s lesson is regarded by most scholars as coming from Jeremiah’s post 587 prophesies. Jerusalem was in ruins and a substantial part of the population had been deported to Babylon (modern day Iraq). There seemed to be no future for Judah. Yet here Jeremiah, the very prophet who refused to offer Judah’s leaders even a sliver of hope for deliverance from Babylon, now speaks to the sorry remnant of the people about a new beginning. Such words could not be heard by Judah before the destruction of Jerusalem because her leaders were too intent on preserving the old covenant that had been irretrievably broken. Judah was hoping that salvation would come in the form of a Babylonian defeat that would preserve the line of David, the Holy City and the temple of Solomon. But that would not have been salvation for a nation that had so thoroughly strayed from her covenant with her God. Hope lay not in preserving Judah and her institutions, but in the new thing God would do for Israel after all these things had been taken away from her. Israel would never again be the glorious nation she was; but through the new covenant Jeremiah promises, Israel will become precisely the nation God needs.
I have said many times before that the prophet Jeremiah might have an important word for a church coming to the end of its prominence and position in western culture. A broken and fragmented church on the fringes of society unable to support the denominational missions, ministries and educational institutions that defined it in the past might not be the “church of the future” we would choose if we had a choice. But such a church might be exactly the kind of people God needs to be the Body of Christ in the world of the Twenty-First Century.
The new covenant of which Jeremiah speaks does not differ substantively from the old. The “law” which God promises to write upon the hearts of God’s people is the law delivered to Israel at Sinai. The problem is not with the law but with the people who failed to internalize it and therefore observed it only in the breech. For example, during the reign of Judah’s last king, Zedekiah, the Babylonian armies advanced and captured all but two of Judah’s fortified cities. Jeremiah 34:7. Hoping to placate God and induce the Lord to save Judah from conquest, Zedekiah persuaded the people to do away with a longstanding practice of enslaving their impoverished fellow Hebrews beyond the six year limit on servitude established under Torah (Exodus 21:2-6). See Jeremiah 34:6-10. Shortly thereafter, Hophra, Pharaoh of Egypt, marched north to attack the Babylonian forces in Palestine. Babylon was forced to raise the siege against Jerusalem and draw its troops down to repel the Egyptian forces. When it seemed as though the Babylonian threat had receded, Zedekiah revoked the decree freeing the slaves and reinstated the lawless practice of indefinite servitude. Jeremiah 34:11. Jeremiah warned Zedekiah that this blatant act of hypocrisy would not go unpunished, that the Babylonian army would return and that there would be no escape from destruction. Jeremiah 34:17-22.
As Jeremiah saw it, the kingdom of David was beyond redemption. The faithlessness of the people could not be addressed by changing or reforming Judah’s existing institutions. Change must come at the very deepest level: within the heart. Salvation is still possible for Judah, but it lies on the far side of judgment. Such restoration does not come easily. In the wilderness of exile, the people will learn once again to depend upon their God for sustenance. Only so can the Torah be written upon the hearts of God’s people.
The promise “I will be their God and they shall be my people” encapsulates at the deepest level God’s final (eschatological) intent for humanity. Vs. 33. The same refrain echoes throughout the book of the prophet Ezekiel (Ezekiel 11:20; Ezekiel 14:11; Ezekiel 36:28) and appears again in the concluding chapters of Revelation. Revelation 21:1-4. Under this new covenant, it will no longer be necessary to instruct people in Torah because Torah, the very shape of obedience to God, will be wholly internalized. If you ask me what such a community looks like, I cite once again the powerful example of the Amish community following the Nickel Mine tragedy. In extending forgiveness to the murderer of their children and offering support to his family, the Amish demonstrated to a sick, violent and gun wielding culture what the kingdom of Christ looks like. This response speaks louder than all the preachy-screechy moralistic social statements ever issued by all the rest of us more mainline, official and established churches. Here, for a brief instant, it was possible to see at work hearts upon which God’s words have been inscribed.
This psalm is associated with the protestant Reformation generally and Martin Luther’s hymn, “A Mighty Fortress is our God” in particular. Structurally, the hymn is made up of three sections punctuated twice by the refrain: “The Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our refuge/fortress.” Vss 7 & 11. Each section is followed with the term “selah.” This word is found seventy-one times in thirty-nine of the Psalms and three times in the book of Habakkuk (Habakkuk 3:3; Habakkuk 3:9; Habakkuk 3:13). It is most likely an instruction to musicians or worship leaders for use in liturgical performances added as a marginal note to the manuscripts and ultimately incorporated into the text. The Greek word (diapsalama) used in the Septuagint to translate the word “selah” means “interlude.” Werner, E., “Music,” The Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, Vol. 3, (c. 1962 by Abingdon Press) p. 460. The exact meaning has been debated among rabbinic scholars since the Hebrew Scriptures were translated into Greek around 270 B.C.E. Suggesting that whatever function the term originally served had ceased even then.
In the first section the psalmist declares confidence in God’s protection in the midst of an unstable world. Earthquakes, storms and floods were terrifying events often attributed to angry deities. The psalmist does not speculate on causation here, but confidently asserts that the God of Jacob can be trusted to provide security and protection even in the midst of these frightening natural phenomena.
The psalmist turns his/her attention in the second section to the city of Jerusalem which, though not mentioned by name, can hardly be any other than the “city of God,” “the holy habitation of the Most High.” Vs. 4. The “river” that makes glad the city of God might be the Gihon Spring, the main source of water for ancient Jerusalem. The spring gushes forth intermittently from a natural cave four or five times a day during the rainy season and, though less frequently, during the dry season as well. It was this water source that made human settlement there possible. The Pre-Israelite inhabitants of Jerusalem dug an underground passage permitting them to draw the water of Gihon without being exposed to attack during a siege of the city. The Gihon was used not only for drinking water, but also for irrigation of gardens in the adjacent Kidron Valley which, in turn, was a source of food for the city. The Gihon was an inspiration for prophetic imagination throughout the Scriptures. The prophet Ezekiel relates a vision in which a miraculous river flows out of the restored temple in Jerusalem to give life to desert areas in Palestine. Ezekiel 47:1-14. Similarly, John of Patmos describes “a river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the street of the city; also, on either side of the river, the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, yielding its fruit each month; and the leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations.” Revelation 22: 1-2. God’s presence in the midst of the city recalls the promise of Jeremiah that “I will be their God and they will be my people.” Jeremiah 31:33.
As a relatively small nation existing in a violent and dangerous geopolitical neighborhood, Israel was no stranger to “raging” nations and unstable kingdoms. Vs. 6. But the psalmist will not be rattled by these dangers. S/he knows that the Holy City is under the protection of the Holy One of Israel. It is not the nations or their rulers who determine the course of history. The God of Jacob is the one whose voice “melts” the earth. So Isaiah would try in vain to convince King Ahaz to be still and wait for God’s salvation from his enemies rather than allying himself with the empire of Assyria-which would be his nation’s undoing. Isaiah 7:1-8:8.
In the third section, the focus is upon the geopolitical scene. The Lord causes wars to cease. The God of Israel is no friend of war. To the contrary, “he makes wars to cease to the end of the earth.” Vs. 9. Moreover, he destroys the weapons of war. He does not call upon Israel to deal violently with the nations of the earth. The psalmist assures us that God can handle that job without us. God says instead, “Be still and know that I am God.” Vs. 10. When confronted with violent enemies (as Israel frequently was), the people are called upon to put their trust in the God of Jacob who is the one and only reliable refuge. In a culture indoctrinated with the belief that “the only way to stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun,” the contrary witness of this ancient psalm is critical.
Paul’s letter to the Romans is the only one in which he makes a sustained theological argument from start to finish. For that reason alone, it is impossible to interpret any single passage in isolation from the whole work. As I have said in prior posts, I believe that Paul’s primary concern is expressed in Romans 9-11. In that section, Paul discusses the destiny of Israel in God’s saving work through Jesus Christ. It is not Paul’s intent to discredit his people or their faith. Rather, he is making the argument that through Jesus the covenant promises formerly extended exclusively to Israel are now offered to the gentiles as well. Though some in Israel (most as it ultimately turned out) do not accept Jesus as messiah, it does not follow that God has rejected Israel. “For the gifts and the call of God are irrevocable.” Romans 11:29. Paul points out that Israel’s rejection of Jesus as Messiah has occasioned the inclusion of the gentiles into the covenant promises. “A hardening,” says Paul, “has come over part of Israel until the full number of the gentiles come in.” Romans 11:25. I must confess that I don’t quite understand how Israel’s rejection of Jesus as messiah makes it any easier for the gentiles to believe. Nevertheless, Paul sees some connection here and, in any event, Israel’s salvation (which is assured) is inextricably bound up with the salvation of the gentiles. According to Paul, Israel and the church are both essential players in God’s redemptive purpose for creation.
With all of this in mind, let’s turn to our lesson for Sunday. Paul points out that “the law” speaks to those under the law so that every mouth will be stopped and the whole world held accountable to God. Vs. 19. Here it is essential to distinguish between “Torah” and “law” as Paul uses it. Torah was always understood and accepted by Israel as a gift. The commandments, even those governing the smallest details of dietary and hygienic practice, were not intended to be oppressive and controlling. They were designed to make every aspect of living, however humble and mundane, a reminder of the covenant through which Israel was privileged to be joined with her God. As such, observance of Torah was a joy, not a burden.
Nevertheless, when observance of Torah is misconstrued and understood not as a gift, but rather a means or method of pleasing God or winning God’s favor, it becomes a burden. The focus is no longer on God’s grace in giving the Torah, but upon my success in keeping it. When that happens, the gift of Torah becomes the curse of “law.” Law always accuses. Think about it: no matter how well you do on the exam, isn’t it usually the case that you come away feeling that you could have done just a little better? Try as we do to be good parents, I have never met one that didn’t feel he or she failed his or her children in some respect. How can you ever be sure that you have done enough? The fear of people in Luther’s day was that God would not be satisfied with their repentance, their confession of sin and their efforts to amend their lives. In a secular culture such as ours, we might not fear eternal damnation quite so much. But we find ourselves enslaved nonetheless to our fears of social rejection and anxiety over failure to meet societal standards of beauty and success. That is why we have young girls starving themselves to death because they cannot measure up to what teen magazines tell them is beautiful. It is also why men become depressed, violent and prone to addiction during prolonged periods of unemployment-a real man earns his own living and pays his own way. We may be a good deal less religious than we were in Luther’s day, but we are no less in bondage to “law.”
Verse 21 contains one of the most critical “buts” in the Bible. “But now,” Paul says, “the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law…” So just as all are judged guilty under the law, so all are justified by God through Jesus Christ as a gift. Henceforth, being right with God is no longer a goal to be achieved through obedience to rules of one kind or another. It is a gift promised by God. Our obedience is no longer an onerous effort to win God’s favor but a thankful response to the favor God freely gives us. That is as true for Jews as it is for Gentiles as Paul will go on to point out in Romans 4. Abraham, after all, was called and responded in faith while he was still essentially a gentile, being uncircumcised and without the Law of Moses. Jews are therefore children of promise who owe their status as God’s people to God’s free election. They did not earn their covenant status through obedience to the law and therefore have no grounds to exclude the gentiles from God’s call to them through Jesus into that same covenant relationship. Importantly, Paul makes the converse argument in Romans 9-11, namely, that gentiles are in no position to judge or exclude the Jews from covenant grace, not even those who do not believe in Jesus. Their status as covenant people does not rest on their obedience or disobedience, but on God’s irrevocable call.
Our reading is part of a much larger exchange beginning at John 7:1 where Jesus declines his brothers’ invitation to accompany them to the Feast of Tabernacles in Jerusalem, but later comes on his own slipping into Jerusalem unnoticed. John 7:1-13. In the midst of the feast, Jesus goes up to the Temple and begins teaching the people. At first, the people do not seem to recognize Jesus. They can see that he is a common person of the type usually untrained in the finer points of Torah. But there is no question that Jesus is, in fact, learned in the law and they marvel at his teaching. When it becomes clear that this strange man is none other than Jesus of Nazareth, the chief priests send officers to arrest him. But instead of bringing Jesus in and booking him, they return amazed and overawed by what they have heard. Exasperated, the chief priests ask the officers why they have not arrested Jesus as ordered. They can only reply, “No one ever spoke like this man!” John 7:46. The chief priests then vilify the officers and the crowds, cursing them for their ignorance of the law. But Nicodemus, a member of the council, cautions the chief priests against pre-judging Jesus’ case before hearing him-only to be rebuffed. (We meet Nicodemus early on in John’s gospel at chapter 3 when he comes to see Jesus under cover of darkness. John 3:1-21. We will meet Nicodemus again following Jesus’ crucifixion as he comes with Joseph of Arimathea to bury the body of Jesus. John 19:38-42).
The narrative is interrupted by the story of the woman caught in adultery, a story that probably was not originally part of John’s gospel. John 8:1-11. Then Jesus’ discourse begun at the last day of the feast picks up where it left off in John 7:37 ff. Though the opposition continues, Jesus is gaining some support. We read that as he spoke, many believed in him. John 8:30. But success is short lived. Our reading picks up just where Jesus turns his focus upon these new believing supporters and tells them, “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.” Vss. 31-33. Clearly, this remark rubbed them the wrong way. “Just what do you mean by that? We are Abraham’s descendants and we have never been in bondage to anyone. How can you promise to set us free?” Vs. 33. Jesus’ newfound supporters appear to be experiencing a “senior moment.” Have they really forgotten the four hundred years their ancestors spent as slaves in Egypt? Have the forgotten the Babylonian Exile? Israel has in fact known bondage under the whip of foreign masters and beneath the tyranny of many of her own leaders. But the greatest tyrant is not Egypt or Babylonia or Rome. The greatest bondage is slavery to sin.
John speaks of sin almost exclusively in connection with each person’s response to Jesus. It is not that people are sinless before they encounter Jesus. Rather, their encounter with Jesus reveals their sin and confronts them with the choice of remaining in sin or being set free from sin. It is precisely because Jesus’ opponents both see and claim to understand him that their guilt is established. John 9:39-41. To know and be set free by the truth is to know Jesus. This knowledge does not consist of propositions about Jesus. To know the truth about Jesus is to know Jesus-just as you know a loved one. That sort of knowledge requires the cultivation of a relationship that grows over time and, as all of us who experience friendship know, is never fully complete. We are always learning more about the people we love and think we know so well. How much more so with Jesus, whose life is the eternal life of the Father?
I believe much of our catechetical practice in the Lutheran Church has been warped by a misunderstanding of what it means to know and to teach the truth. We have modeled our Christian education programs along the lines of public schools. Sunday school involves teaching kids stories and rudimentary doctrines about Jesus. Confirmation consists in teaching Luther’s Catechism as a set of propositions that must be publicly affirmed by middle school aged kids who are just beginning to test and question what is true and believable. That, however, is not how Jesus taught his disciples. Rather than inviting them to come to his seminars, he called them to become fishers for people. He taught them by involving them in his ministry, sharing his meals with them and taking them with him on the road. By contrast, we confirm kids in the spring time (when graduation commencements occur) and very often figure that we have done our job. Once kids have been taught the truth and when they are old enough, we can include them in the church’s ministry. Trouble is, when that time finally comes, they are already long gone. And why not? They got whatever truth they needed to get in the system. The rest is just a refresher course and who needs one of those every single week?
In sum, we have not done a very good job of teaching people who have come through our congregations that discipleship, not membership, is the end point; that discipleship is growing intimacy with Jesus, not just a boat load of facts about him. Perhaps the next reformation can address this shortcoming.
TWENTY-FIRST SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST
PRAYER OF THE DAY: Sovereign God, you turn your greatness into goodness for all the peoples on earth. Shape us into willing servants of your kingdom, and make us desire always and only your will, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.
Who is the greatest? That question always rears its head when two or more people are thrown together. For every jury there is an alpha, one individual who dominates the group, steers the deliberations and exercises a powerful influence over its thought process. A good trial lawyer learns to spot the alpha by his or her mannerisms, interactions with the rest of the jury and the way in which other jurors respond to him or her. Because the lawyer is not permitted to speak with the jurors during the trial and obviously cannot be present during deliberations, s/he must observe the jury’s outgoing, incoming and socialization outside the jury room for clues about just who the alpha might be. The alpha is the one you need to convince for, chances are, as goes the alpha, so goes the jury.
In every gathering of clergy there is always some jousting to determine who is the more well-read, the most successful in parish leadership, the best informed about crucial contemporary issues. Chances are, a leader will emerge within the first several minutes of conversation. Or perhaps two leaders will emerge, but not for long. After an exchange of barbs, intensity of which ranges from mildly discomforting to embarrassingly hostile, one or the other will leave or grudgingly settle for the beta position. No pack of hounds can tolerate two alphas for long. There is room at the top for only one.
Whether we are a jury of strangers given the task of determining the fate of a criminal defendant, a casual group of professionals or the cast of Survivor, we tend to size each other up and vie for position. It’s what we do. We have an irresistible urge to know where we stand in the hierarchy and to ensure that we get as close to the top as possible. If you can’t be the greatest, then you need to pony up to the one who is. That was the strategy of James and John in today’s gospel. They knew that the key to greatness lay in being as close as possible to Jesus. They also knew that greatness does not come to those who wait patiently for it to fall out of the sky. It is the prize of those bold enough to seize it when the opportunity arises.
Amazingly, James and John were at the same time both right on target and woefully mistaken. Jesus is the greatest in God’s sight and those who are associated with him share his kingdom, his power and his glory. But the two disciples were dead wrong about kingdom, power and glory. Little did they know that the reign of God is exercised through humble service. Power lies not in the ability to coerce, but in the patience to forgive the very ones taking your life. Glory is revealed in giving one’s life up to a shameful death for the sake of obedience to God’s highest commandment of love. Exalted at the right and left hand of Jesus in his glory were not any of the apostles, but rather two condemned criminals on crosses. This is what it means to be at the right and left hand of Jesus. Clearly, James and John had no clue what they were asking when they requested this honor.
The Bible turns our notion of greatness on its head. God chose Abram the resident alien-an illegal in our nomenclature-to be the father of his chosen people. God chose Moses, a murderous fugitive, to deliver the Ten Commandments to his people. God elected David, the runt of Jesse’s litter, to be king over Israel, telling the prophet Samuel, who would have chosen one of his more promising elder brothers, “the Lord sees not as man sees; man looks on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.” I Samuel 16:7. God selected Paul, the antichristian jihadist with blood on his hands to bring the good news about Jesus to the gentile world. And finally, God raised up and sat at God’s right hand Jesus-the rabbi from Nazareth whose ministry appears by all human measures to have been an abysmal failure. “This,” says the Lord, “is what greatness looks like.”
Our obsession with greatness is bound to lead us astray. If the Bible tells us anything, it is that we are utterly incompetent when it comes to measuring individual human worth and significance. God delights in choosing for God’s own purposes the least likely, the least worthy and the seemingly least competent to accomplish God’s redemptive work. If we could only get that through our heads and hearts, perhaps we would begin to think differently about those we consider “the least” among us. We might begin to think differently about the pregnancies we terminate; the lives we are prepared to sacrifice and the “collateral damage” we are prepared to inflict in time of war; the life sustaining programs for the poor we are prepared to cut in order to balance the budget; the refugees coming to our land fleeing terror for whom many of our leaders tell us there is no room; the criminals on death row we consider unredeemable and deserving of death. How can we ever know whether the life we so casually dismiss is the very one God means to use for a purpose too wonderful for our comprehension? Because we can never know with any certainty who God will exalt or who God will humble, we ought to leave the business of judging the worth and importance of all lives to God and be content in knowing that, wherever we might fall on anyone’s spectrum of greatness, we are children of our heavenly Father with a place at his table. That is as much greatness as any of us need and reason enough for us to treasure every single human life.
Scholars attribute this text to “Second Isaiah” (Isaiah 40-55), a collection of oracles authored in the main by an anonymous prophet speaking a message of salvation to the Jewish exiles living in Babylon during the 6th Century B.C.E. His was the task of alerting his fellow exiles to the new opportunity created for them to return home to Palestine opened up by Persia’s conquest of Babylon. On the one hand, the prophet makes a joyous declaration of salvation for Israel and announces the potential for a new start. On the other hand, the prophet makes clear that God is doing with Israel something entirely new. This will not be a return to “the good old days” when Israel was a powerful and independent people under the descendants of David. That, according to the prophet, “is too light a thing” for the people of God. Israel and the servant prophet are to be given “as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.” Isaiah 49:6.
This particular reading is taken from the fourth of Isaiah’s four “servant songs,” encompassing all of the verses found at Isaiah 52:13-53:12. I encourage you to read the song in its entirety. The other three servant songs are found at Isaiah 42:1–9, Isaiah 49:1-6 and Isaiah 50:4-11. According to biblical commentator Claus Westermann, these songs represent a special strand within section two of Isaiah. Westermann, Claus, Isaiah 40-66, The Old Testament Library (c. SCM Press, Ltd. 1969) p. 92. As I have pointed out in previous posts, scholars hold differing views on the identity of the “servant” in these songs. Some view the servant as an individual, perhaps the prophet himself/herself. Others maintain that the servant is the people of Israel whose covenant life in the restored Jerusalem will enlighten the nations. Christians from very early on have seen reflected in these verses the ministry of Jesus. It seems to me that all of these interpretations are valid in some measure. Clearly, the prophet himself/herself understood that s/he was announcing an act of God that would be revelatory for all peoples. So too Israel always had an awareness that her existence was in part a demonstration of God’s glory to the world though, like the church, she tended to forget that aspect of her calling at times. The church likewise confessed from the outset that Jesus’ lordship was defined in terms of the hopes and expectations set forth in the Hebrew Scriptures. Just as the faithful service of the prophet was a model for Israel’s servant role among the nations, so the church is a continuation of Jesus’ faithful ministry. In sum, these differing interpretations enrich rather than contradict one another.
This passage might remind you of Lent and Holy Week. That is because it almost always comes into the passion observance at some point. The New Testament church recognized in these words the mission and ministry of Jesus. As I said above, this is all well and good. Nevertheless, it is important for us to keep in mind that this passage, which was composed five hundred years before Jesus was born, had a meaning of its own for the people to whom it was directed. It was originally addressed to the Jews living in exile in Babylon at the end of the 6th Century B.C.E. Part of the prophet’s purpose is to make sense out of the catastrophic destruction of Jerusalem and reassure the exiles that Israel had a future and an important role in God’s redemptive plan. S/he points out that the conquest of Babylon by Persia and the Persian policy of amnesty for peoples exiled under the Babylonian regime is part of that plan. The Jews now have the opportunity to return to the promised land-albeit as subjects of the new Persian Empire. Though they can never hope to recapture the glory of Israel under the Davidic dynasty, their life as a covenant people living in humble obedience to their God will reflect a different and greater glory.
How is the prophet’s/Israel’s suffering redemptive? As I have said before, this is dangerous theological territory. It must be said again from the outset that there is nothing at all redemptive about suffering in and of itself. Nothing good comes from spousal abuse, bullying, racial discrimination, economic exploitation, famine or disease. These are all instances in which suffering has been imposed on people by others or by circumstances beyond their control. There are some instances, however, in which people embrace suffering, not because it is good in itself, but because it is necessary to accomplishing a greater good. If you decide to have children, you will suffer in many ways. There will surely be pain, discomfort and a measure of risk for serious physical harm (to the mother). Sleep deprivation, economic loss, anxiety and stress go hand in hand with raising a family. And this is only the sort of suffering you can expect when everything goes well! The pain of child rearing increases exponentially when your little ones suffer from chronic illness, make self-destructive choices or are taken from you in your lifetime. Still, we keep on having babies because we believe having and raising children to be worth the sacrifices required.
So, too, just as it is costly for us to love a son or daughter whose choices derail their lives, it costs God dearly to love this world that so often takes a self-destructive turn. Any parent who has ever walked with a son or daughter through the long and torturous path from addiction to sobriety knows that love is costly. The cost God was willing to pay for the redemption of the world was a long and often painful journey with God’s people Israel from slavery in Egypt, through doubt in the wilderness, through disobedience and rebellion in Canaan and through the dark night of despair in Babylonian exile. Yet this story reflects to all the world God’s commitment to the redemption of all of creation. Therefore, Israel will finally be vindicated. Her suffering finally will be recognized as faithfulness to a gracious God whose salvation is for all people.
Not surprisingly, the church similarly recognized the redemptive love of God at work in Jesus’ faithful life, obedient suffering and willing death. His resurrection was seen as proof that “the will of the Lord” prospered in his hand. Vs. 10.
Israel’s expression of faithfulness to her God finds both its strongest and most “problematic” expression in this psalm. Anderson, Bernhard, W., Out of the Depths-The Psalms Speak for us Today, (c. 1983 by Bernhard W. Anderson, pub. by Westminster Press) p. 212. The psalm also has the infamous distinction of being the scripture with which the devil tried to induce Jesus to jump to his death from the highest point of the Temple in Jerusalem. (Matthew 4:5-7; Luke 4:9-12). The structure and flow of the psalm is difficult to understand as it is not clear throughout who is speaking and who is being addressed.
The psalm opens with an address to one who is seeking refuge. Psalm 91:1-2. It is possible that the psalmist has in mind the idea of the temple or tabernacle as a place of “sanctuary” where fugitives could find protection from the hasty justice of their angry pursuers by “grasping the horns of the altar.” E.g., I Kings 1:50-51. Ibid. Further support for this interpretation is found in vs. 4 where protection is found beneath God’s outspread wings, perhaps alluding to the cherubim that adorned the ark. There is also a foreshadowing here of Jesus’ lament over Jerusalem: “Oh Jerusalem, Jerusalem, killing the prophets and stoning those who are sent to you! How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, but you would not!” Matthew 23:37; Luke 13:34. This powerful image of maternal protection provides a striking contrast to the very masculine, military images of “shield” and “buckler” in verse 4.
In the next section, the psalmist makes bold declarations and assertions about the protection the faithful servant of Israel’s God can expect. S/he need not fear terror of darkness, hostile arrows, sickness or draught. Psalm 91:5-6. Though thousands are perishing all around, the faithful one will remain unscathed. Psalm 91:7-8. That is the lead up to the verse at the start of our reading: “Because you have made the Lord your refuge, the Most High your habitation, no evil shall befall you, no scourge come near your tent.” Vs. 9. Then come those famous words (made infamous by the devil), “For [God] will give his angels charge of you to guard you in all your ways. On their hands they will bear you up, lest you dash your foot against a stone.” Vss. 11-12.
Unfortunately, this prayer extolling the protective love of God for those who trust in him is open to demonic distortion. There is no shortage of religion in book stores, on the airwaves and pulsing through the internet promising that the right kind of faith in God insulates a person from suffering. The Prayer of Jabez bv Bruce Wilkinson is a prime example. Though I am probably guilty of oversimplifying Mr. Wilkinson’s argument, his basic claim is that extraordinary blessings flow from praying the prayer of a biblical character mentioned briefly in the Book of I Chronicles by the name of Jabez. The entire scriptural basis for this assertion is I Chronicles 4:9-10: “Jabez was more honorable than his brothers. His mother had named him Jabez, saying, ‘I gave birth to him in pain.’ Jabez cried out to the God of Israel, saying, ‘Oh, that you would bless me and enlarge my territory! Let your hand be with me, and keep me from harm so that I will be free from pain.’ And God granted his request.” This snippet of narrative comes in the midst of a lengthy chronology with no supporting context. Jabez’ mother gave birth to him in pain. I am not sure what this means as childbirth typically does not happen without some pain to the mother. Perhaps this was a particularly difficult delivery. All we know about Jabez himself is that he was more honorable than his brothers. But since we don’t know his brothers, this assessment is hard to evaluate. Is this like being the smartest of the Three Stooges? Jabez prays that his territory will be enlarged so that he will be protected from pain-a seeming non sequitur. Seems to me that having a bigger ranch only means you stand to lose a lot more when the tornadoes strike. I must confess that I really don’t know quite what to make of Jabez. So I think I will continue to get my instruction on prayer from Jesus. See Matthew 6:9-13; Luke 11:2-4).
But I digress. The point here is that we should not read this psalm the way Wilkinson interprets the prayer of Jabez, as some sort of magical antidote to life’s slings and arrows. If you read the psalm carefully from the beginning, you will discover that it was composed by one who has seen combat, lived through epidemics and faced mortal enemies. The psalmist knows that the dangers out there in the world are very real and that life is not a cake walk. You might well prevail over lions and adders, but that does not mean you will come through without any scratches. The Lord promises, “I will be with him in trouble” (vs. 15), which can only mean that trouble will come the psalmist’s way. This psalm, then, must be interpreted not as the promise of a magic charm (the devil’s exegesis), but as a word of assurance that God’s redemptive purpose is at work in the lives of all who place their ultimate trust in God’s promises. As such, it is a word of profound comfort.
You will note that from verse 14 on the voice changes. In the previous verses the speaker appears to be that of the psalmist. But the last three verses are words of God declaring a promise of protection to those who know and trust in him. It is possible that this last section of the psalm constitutes an oracle proclaimed by a temple priest or prophet to the psalmist as s/he was seeking assurance in time of trouble and that the previous verses were inspired by the psalmist’s experiencing the fulfillment of these words of promise in his or her own life. Rogerson, J.W. and McKay, J.W., Psalms 51-100, The Cambridge Bible Commentary (c. 1977 by Cambridge University Press) pp. 203-204. The soul and content of this psalm are best summed up by the comments of Artur Weiser:
“The hymn is a sturdy comrade; its boldness and unbroken courageous testimony to God has already enabled many a man to overcome all sorts of temptations. By virtue of the soaring energy of its trust in God it leaves behind every earthly fear, every human doubt and all the depressing realities of life to the hopeful certitude of a faith which is able to endure life and to master it. True, the Christian’s trust in God requires a further readiness to submit to God’s will, even when he has resolved to deal with us in ways other than those we expected the venture of faith to take.” Weiser, Artur, The Psalms, The Old Testament Library (c. 1962 by S.C.M. Press, Ltd.) p. 613.
At this point, you might want to review my introductory remarks on Hebrews from the post of Sunday, October 4, 2015. You might also want to take a look at the Summary Article of Hebrews written by Craig R. Koester, Professor of New Testament at Luther Seminary, St. Paul, MN. I want to emphasize once again that the characterization of Jesus as the ultimate high priest is not a repudiation of Judaism, but rather a repudiation of the efficacy of Temple worship and piety as it had become in the days of Jesus. At its best, the Temple served as a powerful symbol of the actual presence of God in the midst of Israel. It drew worshipers from all corners of Israel to Jerusalem where they celebrated their common faith in God and their solidarity with one another through sacrificial meals. The priesthood served as a mediator of God’s mercy and faithfulness to Israel and Israel’s confession of sin, prayers for forgiveness and hymns of thanksgiving.
At the time of Jesus, the office of the high priest was highly politicized and notoriously corrupt. The Temple that stood during the time of Jesus was built by Herod the Great, a hated figure appointed by Rome to be “King of the Jews.” Herod, it should be noted, was not a Jew and so his designation as the Jewish king was all the more insulting. The Jews, then, were naturally ambivalent about the Temple in Jerusalem. It was, to be sure, a magnificent piece of architecture that arguably dignified the worship of God. But it was also a cash cow for the corrupt priesthood and its Roman overlords. Consequently, both Jews and Christians viewed the Temple’s destruction as God’s judgment on a hopelessly corrupt priesthood.
Just as obedience to Torah and worship revolving around the synagogue replaced Temple worship in the Jewish community, Jesus was understood among Christians as the new Temple of God and God’s true high priest of an entirely different lineage, that of Melchizedek. Melchizedek is an obscure figure who, like our friend Jabez, makes only a fleeting appearance in the scriptures. Genesis 14 tells the story of how a confederation of kingdoms defeated the infamous city states of Sodom and Gomorrah. Abraham’s cousin Lot and his family got caught in the cross-fire and were kidnapped and enslaved by the victorious confederation. Abraham formed his servants into an army and pursued the confederation forces, ambushed them during the night, scattered their troops and rescued Lot. The king of Sodom was naturally grateful to Abraham as this victory benefited his kingdom. He came out to greet Abraham and with him was Melchizedek, king of Salem (another name for Jerusalem). Melchizedek, identified as “priest of God Most High,” brought with him bread and wine. He also blessed Abraham with the words:
“‘Blessed be Abram by God Most High, maker of heaven and earth;
and blessed be God Most High, who has delivered your enemies into your hand!”
And Abram gave him one-tenth of everything.” Genesis 14:19-20. The only other mention of Melchizedek is in Psalm 110, a coronation hymn, in which the newly crowned king of Judah is named “a priest for ever after the order of Melchizedek.” Psalm 110:4. It is this very mysteriousness of Melchizedek, his lack of both genealogy and history, that makes his priestly office such an appealing analogy to the ministry of Jesus. Jesus’ priestly authority is not grounded in the corrupt lineage of the Jerusalem establishment of his time, nor is it even rooted in any human genealogy. Jesus’ appointment and priestly office are grounded in God’s sovereign choice. Vs. 5.
For those of us far removed from the historical context, the argument is a little hard to follow. But the bottom line is that, for the author of Hebrews, Jesus is the focal point for communion with God and fellowship among God’s people. The Eucharistic meal now serves the original purpose of the sacrificial meals in the Temple. Jesus’ once and for all sacrifice is now sufficient to feed God’s people so no further sacrifices of any kind are necessary. Consequently, Christians need not despair over the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem.
In some ways, our own context is analogous to that of the church addressed by the book of Hebrews. We mainline protestants are also experiencing losses-in terms of membership, in terms of financial resources, in terms of our capacity, both as congregations and as national denominations, to be the church we have always been. If current trends continue, my own Evangelical Lutheran Church in America will be a far smaller, poorer and less influential church by the middle of this century. Many of our congregations may no longer be in existence. If numbers, finances and the ability to run expansive programs addressing every conceivable human need are at the center of what it means to be church, this is disturbing news. But maybe size, wealth and programmatic success don’t matter anymore than did the Temple. In my humble opinion, a small, poor and marginalized church speaking from the edges of society is a more faithful witness to Jesus than a wealthy, powerful church entrenched in the structures of societal power speaking from the center. But that is just Jesus, the writer of Hebrews and St. Paul. What do they know?
We might find problematic the language in verse 9 suggesting that Jesus was “made perfect.” Was there a time when he was anything less? From the point of view expressed in John’s gospel, Jesus is the incarnate Word that was with God in the beginning and was God. John 1:1. Yet as a human person Jesus can be known only as all of us are known-through the narrative of our concrete lives, that is, our stories. Jesus’ story, though complete from the standpoint of the resurrection, was fraught with contingencies. His life was genuinely threatened by Herod, he was tempted to forego the cross by the devil, his own disciples and the power of his own human survival instinct. If the gospel narrative is to have any meaning for us, we must accept that these temptations were very real and the danger of stumbling-for Jesus and for us-was also real. It was in the overcoming of these challenges through faithful trust in and obedience to his heavenly Father that Jesus reveals within the human frame the heart of God and realizes the divine intent for human existence, thereby accomplishing God’s redemptive purpose. The gospel narrative, then, is the perfection of Jesus.
At first blush, it seems we should not be too hard on James and John. After all, this how things work among “the gentiles,” including us American gentiles. People who have donated generously to a successful campaign are rewarded with ambassadorships, cabinet positions and committee chairs in the new administration. (That is why prudent donors typically contribute to both campaigns. That way, no matter who wins, s/he will owe you. Why put all your eggs in one basket?) James and John have certainly paid their dues. They have been at Jesus’ side throughout his ministry, stood by him in the face of opposition and have joined him on a danger fraught journey to Jerusalem. It is hardly unreasonable to ask that Jesus reward their loyalty with some measure of privilege in the coming kingdom. This is how politics is practiced in the real world.
Much of the story’s irony will be lost on us this Sunday because the lectionary makers have failed to include verses 32-34 that come directly before the lesson. Here we read: “They were on the road, going up to Jerusalem, and Jesus was walking ahead of them; they were amazed, and those who followed were afraid. He took the twelve aside again and began to tell them what was to happen to him, saying, ‘See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be handed over to the chief priests and the scribes, and they will condemn him to death; then they will hand him over to the Gentiles; they will mock him, and spit upon him, and flog him, and kill him; and after three days he will rise again.’” It is after this dark pronouncement that James and John come forward with their request for a high office in the coming Jesus administration. The warning that Jesus’ mission will end with his execution seems to have fallen upon deaf ears. The two disciples do not yet understand what Jesus’ coming in glory is going to look like. If they had understood, they might have been thankful to learn that the privilege of being at Jesus right and left hand had already been given away-to two criminals. James and John truly have no idea what they are requesting.
Yet, says Jesus, they will drink the cup he must drink and share in the baptism with which he is about to be baptized. That is a good word; a word of promise. James and John cannot understand it as such yet. Perhaps they cannot understand it at all. The question is, though, do we understand it? And if we understand it, do we hear it as good news? This is one of those texts that is more conveniently ignored-just like the one from last week in which Jesus calls upon the rich young man to sell all his possessions and give them to the poor. In fact, as I look at how most of our congregations are managed, how church denominations (including my own ELCA) are operated, we don’t look all that different from the gentile world. We have constitutions that divvy up power and authority between the pastor, lay leaders and committees. The pay structure for bishops, pastors of large congregations and pastors of smaller congregations does not suggest to me that we view “the least” as the “greatest.” We have our power struggles, disputes over authority and arguments over who is the greatest. I am not always convinced that our liturgy communicates the message that worship leaders and ministers of word and sacrament are “the least of all and the servants of all.” Vs. 44.
Some of this, no doubt, is attributable to sinful human nature. After all, if we find power politics at work among the original twelve disciples, is it really so surprising that it persists among us today? Yet I wonder whether our structures do not contribute to our failure to practice servant leadership effectively. More importantly, I wonder if our structures are not the misbegotten fruit of a theology of church based on the notion of individual rights rather than selfless service within the Body of Christ. As a tail end baby boomer and child of the 60s (sort of), to be at all critical of “rights” goes against the grain of my moral conscience. But lately I have come to believe that my moral conscience is wrong. I do not believe that it is possible to preach the good news of Jesus Christ in the language of “rights.” The only way I can possess a right is to have an existence independent of the Body of Christ. If I am a member of the Body of Christ, then it makes no more sense to speak of my right to do this or that than it does to speak of my foot’s right to act independent of the rest of my body. To be baptized into the Body of Christ is to die to any individual right I may have and to live henceforth for the good of the Body.
For a broken and divided world filled with individuals and groups all having conflicting interests, the language of rights does little more than define the contours of its fractures. The language of rights can only produce endless disputes over whose right is primary and how far a given right goes. That, of course, is colored by economic self-interest, value judgments, cultural bias and a whole host of other distorting factors that virtually ensure a conceptual quagmire. When the church attempts to couch the gospel in the language of rights and frames its call for justice, peace and reconciliation in terms of rights, it invariably finds itself the dupe of some partisan interest. To be sure, the church has often sided with partisan interests that advance the cause of justice. But just as often it has sided with slavery, segregation, war and exploitation. In short, when we get caught up in speaking the language of rights, I am not convinced the church speaks truth any more clearly or faithfully than other people of good will. We are self-interested too, after all.
Perhaps before we can speak of justice we need to experience it. Maybe we cannot ever hope to speak the truth unless we give ourselves to living the truth in a community that is founded not on inalienable rights, but on the unconditional mercy by which we have each been absorbed into a Body where our individual lives have been surrendered. “I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me; and the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” Galatians 2:20. Maybe the first step in speaking truth and justice is simply to be the church, the Body of Christ, a community of servants who claim no rights, no privileges, no greatness or distinction. We might not be any better at living as a Body than were James and John, or the church in Corinth or any other New Testament congregation. Nevertheless, even a church that does church badly is a better witness than a church that has given up on being church and adopts the way of “the gentiles.”
TWENTIETH SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST
PRAYER OF THE DAY: Almighty and ever-living God, increase in us your gift of faith, that, forsaking what lies behind and reaching out to what lies ahead, we may follow the way of your commandments and receive the crown of everlasting joy, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.
Roseburg, Oregon is the site of the latest mass shooting-an event so common in our nation these days that one can hardly call it news anymore. I have no doubt that this event will elicit another angry cry from all of us who want to see this madness end. It will certainly trigger the usual run on guns and ammunition by millions fearing the imminent government seizure of their weapons. The gun industry will cry all the way to the bank. We can expect the usual mantra from the NRA: “Guns don’t kill people; people kill people.” The presidential hopefuls will get into the act, walking the tightrope between public empathy for the victims and quiet assurances to their NRA donors that nothing will change. Once the victims are buried and forgotten, life will go on-for the rest of us anyway.
I don’t have any animus against guns or gun owners per se. I grew up in Washington State on the Olympic Peninsula where hunting was second only to fishing in popularity as an outdoor sport. My parents did not hunt or own guns, but most of my friends’ families did. There were few shootings or gun accidents back then because gun owners in our community were, for the most part, responsible people who knew how to use guns, how to care for them and how to keep them locked away and out of the hands of children. Guns were something very different back then. We never thought of them as weapons. They were like fishing poles, designed to enable men and women to engage in a friendly contest with mother nature in the beauty of the wilderness.
Here I will pause and apologize to my animal loving friends who might find this characterization insensitive. Personally, I prefer not to kill animals. But in defense of my hunter friends, I would only say that their taking down a deer in the wilderness, as any number of animal predators might do, is a good deal more humane than the industrial slaughter of millions of cattle that never see anything like a natural habitat. Food for thought.
But I digress. Today guns are more than mere sporting implements. They have become the ultimate symbol of control in this increasingly violent and paranoid American cultural scene. My gun stands between me and the sweeping changes overtaking society. My gun is all that protects me from a government I can no longer trust. My gun represents my ultimate power to say “no.” When they finally come for me (whoever “they” are), I can turn my gun on them and fight to the last round. Then, in a final act of defiance, I can turn it myself. As the now well-known bumper sticker epitaph has it: “They’ll take my gun when they can pry it from my cold dead fingers.”
Despite the never ending string of school, workplace and public area shootings we have experienced over the last couple of decades, Americans for the most part remain firmly committed to retaining their fire arms. The shootings, we are told by gun control foes, are the price we must pay for maintaining our freedoms, and that requires unrestricted ownership and use of firearms. It is not surprising to me that we have become a nation that loves its guns more than its children. The Hebrew Scriptures teach us that false gods always demand the blood sacrifice of our children. It’s the price we must pay, they tell us, for the safety and protection they offer. So we hang on tight to our guns and offer the required sacrifice. The latest holocaust in Roseburg will not be the last. Molech is a hungry deity. At its root, our problem with guns is not in regulation or the lack of it. Our problem is idolatry.
Our gospel lesson tells the story of a young man who turned away from the kingdom of God because he could not let go of his wealth. Unless he had a change of heart that we don’t know of, I suspect that his money had to be pried from his cold dead fingers in the end. So it is with all the idols to which we cling so tenaciously whether guns, wealth or something else. They promise safety, security and happiness. But in the end, and only when it is too late, do we finally discover that they have robbed us of what is most dear, lied to us, betrayed us and deserted us.
For some autobiographical information on Amos, I refer you to my post of Sunday, July 12th. Israel was experiencing an economic, military and religious revival under the leadership of her King, Jeroboam II. Business was booming; the long struggle with Syria had ended in victory for Israel; the chief sanctuary of the Lord in Bethel was packed to the rafters with avid worshipers. It was morning in Israel. Yet despite all appearances to the contrary, things were rotten to the core. The courts were turning “justice to wormwood.” Vs. 7. A new commercial class had gained unprecedented wealth by ruthlessly exploiting the poor even as they patronized the temple singing the hymns to Israel’s God. Vs. 11. It was Amos’ job to tell his people that their wealth was not evidence of God’s blessing, but kindling for God’s fierce wrath. Wealth built on injustice will not be tolerated among the people called to be God’s light to the nations. So Amos calls his people to “seek the Lord and live, lest he break out like fire against the house of Joseph.” Vs. 6.
The parallels here between 8th Century Israel and 21st Century Wall Street are hard to miss. That pervasive infection of greed, selfishness and complete lack of conscience that built a mountain of phony wealth ending in a devastating crash ruining our economy is precisely the kind of sin infecting Israel. Like Amos, there were some lone voices in the business community crying out words of warning, but they were ignored. Though we can surely point to conduct by banks, mortgage brokers and venture capitalists that was absolutely despicable, I believe part of the blame for our present economic woes must fall squarely upon the rest of us who were all too willing to tolerate such conduct as long as it was growing our pensions and increasing the value of our homes. Nobody was trying to occupy Wall Street when the gravy train was on the roll.
Still and all, I think we need to be careful about drawing parallels. There is a difference between Israel and the United States of America. Israel was God’s covenant partner. She was called to be a light to the nations. She had received her freedom as a people and her land from the hand of God. She was God’s chosen people. Therefore, she was judged under the terms of the covenant relationship that her conduct had so grievously violated. The United States is not God’s chosen people. God has no covenant with America. Because America is not a party to the covenant, America is not answerable to its terms. That is not to say that God is unconcerned with what America or any other nation does or does not do. In general terms, God’s judgment falls upon all nations that practice injustice and unrighteousness. Psalm 47:8-9. In general, God judges the righteousness of a people by how they treat and care for the weakest and most vulnerable in their midst. Psalm 82:1-4. I think we can say with a reasonable degree of certainty that God is not pleased with the conduct leading up to the crash on Wall Street or with how the economic burdens resulting from that crash have been distributed. That said, Israel, as a people called by God to live in a covenant relationship reflecting a better hope for all humanity, is uniquely responsible for obedience to the terms of the covenant under which that hope is given concrete expression. So this word of Amos is more properly directed to the people of God, Israel and the church, than to Wall Street. So we need to ask ourselves how these words speak to us as disciples of Jesus.
For the first three centuries of its existence, the church had no buildings, meeting places or financial reserves. It met in people’s homes or in the open air. Not until the church came under the patronage of the Roman Empire did it begin to accumulate wealth. As both Amos and Jesus point out, wealth often looks like blessing when, in fact, it is a curse. When churches come into money, they have a tendency to become more like lawyers, businesspeople and accountants than faithful disciples. It is sobering to realize that Israel’s finest hours occurred at times when she had her back against the wall and nothing with which to defend herself. That is where she most often witnessed the saving power of God. When Israel had wealth, peace and power she tended to forget where these gifts came from and began to imagine that they were hers to do with as she wished. The church is no less vulnerable to the temptations of wealth than was Israel. We are just as apt to confuse the gift with the Giver and place our trust and confidence on the shifting sand of financial security rather than on the Rock which is Christ Jesus.
The church must never forget that she is in the business of making disciples-not growing membership, maintaining church programs and facilities or investing wealth to make more wealth. Money is not evil, but the love of money is. Most of us have a hard time having money without becoming attached to it and allowing it to run our lives. The gospel lesson is a very pointed reminder of that very thing.
This gloomy psalm is attributed to “Moses, the man of God.” Vs. 1. This attribution was probably added late in the life of the Psalter. Wieser, Artur, The Psalms, The Old Testament Library (c. 1962 by S.C.M. Press, Ltd.) p. 595. That, however, is no reason to discard the possibility that the psalm’s origin was in some fashion connected to Moses. While we know that the alphabet and thus the written Hebrew language did not exist during the time of Moses, we also know that poetry originating during the time of the Judges, also pre-alphabet, was passed on in oral form and written down only centuries later. (i.e., The Song of Deborah at Judges 5:1-31). It is not so much of a stretch to suggest that the same might be true of songs sung by the people of Israel before their migration into Canaan.
However scholars might resolve the question of authorship, it is obvious from a canonical standpoint that the worshiping community of Israel associated this psalm with Moses. This is the prayer of a people that has seen years of suffering, hardship and sorrow. As God’s mediator, it is not inconceivable that Moses might have uttered such a prayer. Adding to the peoples’ misery is the knowledge that their own sins and folly are at least partly responsible for the predicament in which they find themselves. They recognize in their sorrow the just wrath of God upon the evil they have done and the just consequences of the bad choices they have made. Beyond all of this, the psalm seems to recognize a universal sorrow that goes with being human. No matter how good life may have been to us, it inevitably slips away. Our children grow up and begin living lives separate from our own. The house, once boisterous and chaotic, is now quiet and a little empty. We retire and someone else takes our place. We lose our ability to drive. We might have to move out of the home we have lived in for most of our lives. Time seems to take life away from us piece by piece. As it all comes to an end we are left with unfinished tasks, unrealized dreams, regrets about those things of which we are now ashamed, but can no longer change.
Moses might have prayed this prayer on behalf of his people as they struggled through the wilderness toward a promise he knew that he would never see fulfilled. It always seemed a tad unfair to me that God denied Moses the opportunity to enter into the land of Canaan with the people he had led for so long all on account of what seems a trivial offense. (See Numbers 20:2-13). Yet that is the way of mortal existence for all of us. We bring life to the next generation, but will never know that generation’s final destiny. Our strength leaves us before we have been able to complete the many tasks we have set for ourselves. We often die without knowing which, if any, of our efforts to achieve lasting results will bear fruit. We can only pray with the psalmist that God will establish the work of our hands and complete what we could only manage to begin.
Gloomy as it is, though, the psalm contains a ray of light. The psalmist’s prayer was answered. The psalmist concludes his/her prayer with the words: “establish thou the work of our hands upon us, yea, the work of our hands establish thou it.” Vs. 17. That we have this psalm in the scriptures, and that we will be singing it together on Sunday demonstrates that God in fact “established the work” of this psalmist’s hands. (I should mention that I owe this insight to Professor Rolf Jacobson, professor at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, M.N.) As dark as this psalm may be (and it is pretty dark), it is nevertheless a testament to God’s determination to make of our lives something beautiful and worth preserving. It reminds me of Paul’s assuring word to the disciples at Philippi: “And I am sure that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ.” Philippians 1:6. Time may be at work taking us apart piece by piece. But the Spirit of God is also at work piecing together the new person born at our baptism into Jesus Christ.
As always, I encourage you to read Psalm 90 in its entirety.
For my general comments on the Letter to the Hebrews, see my post of Sunday, October 4th. You might also want to take a look at the Summary Article by Craig R. Koester, Professor of New Testament at Luther Seminary, St. Paul, MN on enterthebible.org.
In Sunday’s lesson, the writer compares the word of God to a double edged sword. Vs. 12. This is a violent image. A sword has one purpose and that is to slay. Yet as discomforting as this image may be, it is entirely appropriate. To hear God’s word is to come very close to death. Recall the terror of Isaiah when confronted by a vision of God in the Temple of Jerusalem: “Woe is me! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of Hosts.” Isaiah 6:5. The word of God discerns the “thoughts and intentions of the heart.” Vs. 12. In its light, nothing is hidden.
I think a lot of us put a lot of effort into keeping secrets on ourselves. It has been said that every person has three selves: the one she is, the one she thinks she is and the one everyone else things she is. It is the first one that I am least likely to know because I am overly concerned with the first two. I want to believe that I am a person of integrity, courage, wisdom and vision. Those character traits are important to a minister. So I when I am less than honest, I rationalize it by convincing myself that it is all to spare the feelings of those who might be offended by what I believe to be the truth. When I am cowardly, I tell myself that discretion is the better part of valor. When I make mistakes, I make excuses. When I am at a loss over what needs to be done, I try to exude confidence. It takes a lot of energy to maintain a disguise. So as painful as a confrontation with God’s word may be, it is also liberating. There is nothing like the relief a person feels when a good and trusted friend says, “Who do you think you’re fooling. I know what’s going on here. Let’s talk about it.” Suddenly, the pressure is off. I no longer have to maintain the façade. I can stop making excuses, explanations, justifications and get down to the business of taking responsibility and making the changes I need to make.
That brings me to the second part of this lesson. The writer of Hebrews does not urge us to flee in fear from this blinding light of God’s word, but rather “with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.” Vs. 16. God never wounds us unless it is for the ultimate purpose of healing. If the word of the Lord sometimes scares the hell out of us, it is because we were made for something better than hell. Those of you who have undergone joint replacement surgery know that healing can sometimes be a long and painful journey. Successful surgery can relieve you of a lot of pain and give you more freedom of mobility. But to get there, the pain is going to have to get worse before it gets better. So it is with the Kingdom of God. The vision of a new heaven and a new earth where God dwells in our midst and we live together in peace with our neighbors and all of creation is one to which I am irresistibly drawn. Yet I know that I am not the sort of person that could live in such a renewed creation. I need a heart transplant and the only surgical instrument sharp enough to perform that operation for me is the word of God. Only daily repentance and forgiveness among people of faith can assist me in growing into the stature of Jesus Christ. With the psalmist, I must rely upon God to establish the work of my hands. I must trust Jesus to complete what he began at my baptism.
This is without doubt one of the saddest stories in the gospels. The way Mark tells it, this young man was sincere when he came to Jesus yearning for eternal life. And let us be clear about one thing. When the gospels speak of “eternal life,” they are not merely speaking about some distant event in the “sweet by and by.” Eternal life is life that is spent doing the things that are of eternal importance, the things that matter to God. Naturally, then, Jesus refers the young man to the Commandments, all of which he claimed to have observed from his youth. We are told that Jesus, “looking upon him loved him.” Vs. 21. “You lack just one thing,” says Jesus. Vs. 21. But alas, that one thing is just one thing too much for the young man. He wanted to follow Jesus. He wanted to spend the rest of his life doing things that matter eternally. Instead, “he went away sorrowful; for he had great possessions.” Vs. 22.
I am afraid that I identify with this rich young man. No, I am not rich by Bill Gates standards, but like nearly all Americans, I enjoy a measure of wealth that two thirds of the world can only dream about. I have never had to go hungry. I have never had to travel further than the kitchen sink to find clean water. Like everybody else in America, I feel I am not making enough, that my taxes are too high and that everything is more expensive than it should be. But I have no fear of starving to death or having to sleep on the street or being driven out of the community in which I live. Even if I were to end up broke and homeless, I have enough family and friends that would see to my basic needs and a social safety net that, despite years of trimming down, is still there. That might not get me on the cover of Forbes, but it makes me filthy rich by standards of most the world’s population.
Like the rich young man in our gospel lesson, I want to live my life for the things that matter eternally, but at the cost of losing my wealth? I would like to think that this is just a hypothetical question. Of course Jesus does not expect all of us to give up everything. This rich young man was a special case because…well, because he was rich. He was addicted to his wealth. But that’s not me. I am no addict. Just because an alcoholic must refrain from drinking to maintain his sobriety, that doesn’t mean that the rest of us have to be teatotalers. So the argument goes. Trouble is, there is no indication that this young man was anymore addicted to his wealth than we are. In fact, we don’t even learn that he was wealthy until the end of the story. There is no indication either that Jesus knew about his wealth initially.
Moreover, the twelve disciples, who do not appear to have been rich, were also required to gave up all of their possessions to follow Jesus. Vs. 8. So this is not about class warfare. Jesus is not siding with 99% against the 1%. Jesus asks no more or less of this young man than he does the rest of his disciples. But unlike the twelve, who left everything to follow Jesus, the young man cannot walk away from his wealth. So I do not believe we can get ourselves out from under this troubling word by trying to make of the rich young man a special and extraordinary case. Giving up everything seems to go hand and hand with discipleship.
This story is so unsettling because it hits us right where we live. Next to the cult of individualism that has become so much a part of the American consciousness, I believe that the greatest threat to the health of the church today is our wealth. Somehow, we have convinced ourselves that we cannot be the church without elaborate sanctuaries in which to worship, a seminary trained pastor for each individual congregation, a Sunday School, numerous programs to meet every conceivable need and a big piece of real estate that does nothing other than provide a place for people to park their cars once a week on Sunday. The churches in the African nation of Namibia cannot afford any of these things, yet these churches are growing and thriving even as American churches decline. The question here is not about individual giving to the church-important as that is. Rather, the question is whether, as a church, we have given all to Jesus. How much of what we do is geared toward satisfying our own wants and needs as members rather than surrendering all to become the Body of Jesus in our communities? Do we trust Jesus enough to follow after him doing the things that matter eternally-even when those things are not financially rewarding, desired by our members or promising in terms of increasing membership? We confess each week in the Creed that we believe in Jesus, but are we ready to put our money where our mouth is? A church’s budget is frequently a portal into its soul. What do our financial records say about who we are? Do they reflect a passionate concern for the things that matter eternally?