Archive for November, 2015
SECOND SUNDAY OF ADVENT
PRAYER OF THE DAY: Stir up our hearts, Lord God, to prepare the way of your only Son. By his coming give to all the people of the world knowledge of your salvation; through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.
This Sunday’s lessons promise justice. The prophet Malachi assures Israel that the Lord will appear as a refiner’s fire purifying the earth for a new age. Zechariah sings of the day when God will deliver Israel from her enemies that she might “serve him without fear, in holiness and righteousness…” Paul expresses his confidence that God, who began a good work in us, “will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ.” John the Baptist proclaims the leveling of mountains and the exaltation of valleys at the advance of the One who is to come. That’s all good news-until you start thinking about it.
Malachi sounds this sobering cautionary note: “but who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears?” If the reign of God were to come tomorrow, I am not at all convinced that I would be prepared to meet it. The problem with heaven is that it will be hell for those of us who are not ready to live there. How many of us really want a creation in which all things are reconciled in Christ Jesus? All is a big word. I have no desire to be reconciled with Keith, the kid who bullied me to the point where I hated getting up in the morning and did not feel safe even in my own back yard. Not that I wish him any harm. I’m over that. In fact, I was glad to learn that Keith now has a flourishing dental practice in my home town. I think it’s great that he ended up in a profession where he can both satisfy his sadistic impulses and benefit society. Would that all the world’s sociopaths were so well integrated. I hope he lives long and prospers, but I don’t particularly want to see him again. Then, of course, there are the notorious evildoers: Hitler, Stalin, Osama Bin Landin, Bull Connor and others in the scoundrel’s hall of fame. Heaven would hardly be heaven if these folks were parading about in the presence of their victims. I cannot imagine or accept their reconciliation. Clearly, they must be burned away in the refining process. Justice requires no less-or at least that is so for justice as I understand it.
The trouble is, I don’t understand it. My perception of justice is too self-centered and myopic. I cannot see what is truly just from God’s perspective. For that reason, we all need to be careful about demanding justice. Sometimes you get what you ask for and it is not what you expect. The line between good and evil does not run neatly between righteous and unrighteous people, good nations and evil nations. That line runs through the middle of every human heart. The evil we hate and deplore in others is often a reflection of what lies in the depths of our own hearts. The cleansing fire of God’s justice comes not merely to eliminate people I don’t like. It comes to deal with the grudges I can’t let go of; resentment of enemies I can’t find it in my heart to forgive; my lust for recognition that never seems to be satisfied; and the lies I tell myself about myself in order for me to live with myself. Justice has a lot of refining to do with my own soul before I can live justly under God’s reign.
I am beginning to understand the Roman Catholic doctrine of purgatory. Though it has little or no support in the scriptures, it makes good sense. Clearly, it will take more than a life time to purge my soul and make me capable of sharing in the love of the Father for the Son and for the rest of creation. But whether I must undergo thousands of years of purging or whether I am changed “in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye,” it amounts to the same thing, namely, change. After undergoing such a radical transformation, after being refined in the fierce fire of God’s judgment, after being cleansed of the pride, resentment, anxiety and envy that have shaped so much of my life, will there by anything left of me? Is there enough of the mind of Christ in me to constitute a new person?
Saint Paul gives me some comfort here with his assurance that God, who began a good work in me at baptism, will bring that good work to completion in the Day of Jesus Christ. God will see to it that God’s eternal destiny for me (not necessarily my own hopes for eternity) will be fulfilled. The man I might become after passing through the refining fire of God’s judgment may not be recognizable to me. But he will recognize the Lord who has been present to him throughout his lifetime. And that, Saint John tells us, is the stuff of eternal life. Perhaps that is why Jesus told us in last week’s gospel not to fear the dissolution of creation and to raise our heads in hope even as the signs of our own destruction are all around. However fearful the judgment might be, it is a cleansing judgment, a refining fire, a wound designed to heal. It is the storm that necessarily precedes the calm.
Here’s a poem by Leonora Speyer.
The squall sweeps gray-winged across the obliterated hills,
And the startled lake seems to run before it;
From the wood comes a clamor of leaves,
Tugging at the twigs,
Pouring from the branches,
And suddenly the birds are still.
Thunder crumples the sky,
Lightning tears at it.
And now the rain!
The wind, reveling in the confusion of great pines!
And a silver sifting of light,
A sense of summer anger passing,
Of summer gentleness creeping nearer—
Penitent, tearful, Forgiven!
Nothing is known about the prophet Malachi, whose name in Hebrew means, “My messenger.” The prophet probably lived between 500 and 450 B.C.E. after the Jewish exiles from Babylon had returned and rebuilt the temple in Jerusalem. For more information about the prophetic book bearing his name, I refer you to the Summary Article by Michael Rogness, Professor of Preaching and Professor Emeritus of Homiletic at Luther Seminary, St. Paul, M.N.
Malachi was fiercely dedicated to the reconstructed temple and highly critical of the priesthood he accused of corrupting its worship. Malachi also criticizes the people of Israel for their failure to support the temple, for offering sick and blemished animals for sacrifice and for a general lack of faithfulness to Israel’s covenant with her God. In the concluding chapter Malachi answers his critics who claim that God has abandoned Israel. God is sending “my messenger” before him who will “suddenly come to his temple.” Vs. 1. The question is not whether God will come, but whether Israel will be able to stand in God’s presence. Vs. 2. “For [God] is like a refining fire,” a “purifier of silver.” This God will “purify the sons of Levi and refine them like gold and silver, till they present right offerings to the Lord.” Vss. 2-3.
The news is good in the sense that the ultimate result will be that “Judah and Jerusalem will be pleasing to the Lord as in the days of old and as in former times.” Vs. 4. Yet the purification process promises to be painful. The refining fire will consume all the dross and impurities from Israel. There will be a terrible cost for this purification. So also John is sent to “preach a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sin.” The intent is to save Israel, but salvation cannot come without a painful transformation. That continues to be the case. To be baptized into Jesus Christ is to be baptized into Christ’s death. We are called daily to die to sin and rise up again to a new life of faith in Jesus. In the refining fire of the church, a community dedicated to following Jesus, we learn the hard lessons of forgiveness, compassion, faithfulness and hospitality. In other words, we are sanctified and made holy. It is a slow process, a painful process, a process that will not be finished this side of the resurrection and not by us. See Comments on Philippians 1:3-11 below. Yet it is a joyful process in which we discover just how wonderful it is to be a creature reflecting the glory of his or her Creator.
You need to know the story behind this song before you can understand it. These are the words of Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist. He was a priest of the temple in Jerusalem in the time just prior to Jesus’ birth. When his division was on duty, he was selected to enter into the temple and burn incense before the holy of holies. While he was performing this duty, an angel appeared to him and told him that his wife, Elizabeth, would bear a son and instructed him to name the child John. Understandably, Zechariah was incredulous. He was an old man and his wife was also long past child bearing years. They had never been able to have children before. So Zechariah asked the angel, “How shall I know this?” The angel identified himself as Gabriel, “who stand in the presence of God.” Gabriel told Zechariah that he would be unable to speak until the birth of the child because he doubted this good news. So it was that Zechariah emerged from the temple speechless. Luke 1:5-20.
Elizabeth conceived and bore a son. Her relatives and neighbors began calling the infant “Zechariah” after his father, but Elizabeth corrected them: “Not so,” says Elizabeth. “His name is John.” Everyone protests that no one in her family has ever borne that name. Then they turn to Zechariah who would have had the final say in this matter. Much to their surprise, Zechariah asks for a writing tablet and inscribes on it these words for all to see: “His name is John.” At that instant, Zechariah’s tongue is set free and he breaks forth in the song that is our psalm for the day. Luke 1:57-66.
Though the birth of John is the occasion for this joyous song, the song’s focus is on the mighty works and promises of God. The promises made to Abraham and to David are evoked by Zechariah’s words. The “horn of salvation” (Vs. 69) is a symbol of might. See Deuteronomy 33:17. The covenantal language throughout the song unites the promises made to Abraham with those sworn to David. Vss. 70-73. The “horn of salvation” raised up within the house of David will make the Abrahamic promises of blessing to all peoples a reality. This “horn of salvation” is Jesus. John’s identity and role is spelled out in this hymn only in relation to Jesus before whom John will go as a prophet of the Most High. John will prepare the way by giving people “knowledge of salvation in the forgiveness of their sins.” Vs. 77.
A couple of things are worth noting here. First, there is an interesting interplay between Zachariah’s inability to speak and Elizabeth’s speech concerning the naming of her son. Elizabeth’s naming of John is totally ignored by her relatives and neighbors who turn to Zechariah-who has no ability to speak! It is as though poor Elizabeth has no voice. But when the speechless man gives his full support to the voiceless woman, this beautiful song of liberation bursts forth, promising an end to oppression and violence, the dawn of a new day and a path that leads to peace. This is not the first time Luke’s gospel gives a prominent voice to women. We will see throughout the readings we encounter this year a deep concern for women and an intentional effort to give them a voice in the gospel narrative.
Second, it is important to note the wealth of imagery in this song taken from the Hebrew Scriptures. I cannot emphasize enough how critical it is to read the New Testament in light of those Hebrew Scriptures. Unless you fully appreciate the wealth of promises, the richness of hope and the textured narrative embedded in the Hebrew Scriptures, your view of the New Testament will necessarily be truncated and distorted. I am convinced that the most heretical book ever published is the New Testament printed apart from the Hebrew Scriptures.
A word or two about Paul’s letter to the Philippians is warranted since we will be hearing lessons from that book this week and next. The first thing to note is that the letter to the Philippians is not one, but actually three different letters sent by Paul to the church at Philippi at different times. These letters were collected together and over time became integrated as a single document. The three letters in their likely chronological order are as follows:
Phil A = Phil 4:10-20 (a short “Note of Thanksgiving” for monetary gifts Paul received from the Philippians)
Phil B = Phil 1:1 – 3:1; 4:4-7; (a “Letter of Friendship” written from prison, probably in Ephesus)
Phil C = Phil 3:2 – 4:3; 4:8-9; 4:21-23 (a stern warning against the rival missionaries who require the circumcision of Gentiles)
It is impossible to determine the timing of the first letter other than to say that it was between the start of Paul’s missionary activity beginning around 45 A.D. and his arrest in Jerusalem around 60 A.D. There is no mention of Paul’s imprisonment in this letter. It appears that the Philippian congregation sent a gift of money in support of Paul’s mission work in Ephesus by the hand of one of its members, Epaphroditus. This evidently was not the first time the congregation had sent support to Paul and he is overwhelmed by this church’s generosity. Though Paul does not depend on material support from his congregations, knowing that God will supply his needs, he nevertheless rejoices in such support as it benefits his mission as well as the spiritual wellbeing of the supporting congregation. After delivering the Philippian church’s gift to Paul, Epaphroditus stayed with him to help in his mission to Ephesus. As a result of civil unrest generated by Paul’s preaching, Paul is arrested and imprisoned. (Acts 19:23-20:1; I Corinthians 15:32; II Corinthians 1:8-11). To make matters worse, Epaphroditus becomes gravely ill. The Philippians are greatly distressed by both of these developments. Upon Epaphroditus’ recovery, Paul sends him back to the Philippians with the second letter assuring them that, in spite of the circumstances, he is well and that his imprisonment is furthering the cause of the gospel. The final letter appears to be a fragment from a larger letter, the remainder of which has been lost. Paul is writing to warn the Philippians of some rival missionaries who are teaching the Gentile converts that they must be circumcised in order to join the church. This issue is treated further in Paul’s Letter to the Galatians.
Our reading for this Sunday comes from the second letter, Phil B. Though there is some dispute among scholars over where Paul was imprisoned when he wrote this letter, it is clear that Paul was imprisoned at the time for activities related to his preaching. I find most persuasive the conclusion that Paul was in Ephesus at this time. It is noteworthy that Paul begins his letter not with a description of his own dire circumstances as a prisoner, but with a word of thanksgiving for the support and partnership he has received from the church at Philippi. If you read further on in this first chapter of Philippians, it becomes clear that Paul’s position is precarious. The proceedings against him could possibly lead to a death sentence. Though Paul would prefer release from prison and further fruitful ministry, he is prepared to die for his witness to Jesus. He is confident that his little church in Philippi is safe in the arms of Jesus and that God “who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ.” Vs. 6.
I think this is about the most comforting word in the Bible. After all, life is full of loose ends. There are things I wish I had said to Mom and Dad when they were still alive. There are activities I wish I had done with my children, places I wish I could have taken them, time lost that I know I should have spent with them. Although I would like to believe I have grown in wisdom and understanding, I know that I suffer from the same insecurity, fear and anger I have known all my life. There are days when I ask myself, “Peter, are you ever going to grow up?” Now, well into the top third of my statistically determined life span, it is clear to me that I have not the time, energy or wisdom to tie up all the loose ends in my life. So it is good to know that, where I can make only a very poor beginning, Jesus promises completion. I can die before the work is finished knowing that Jesus will heal what is wounded, reconcile what is estranged and restore what has been lost.
In this season of Advent our focus is on what Paul calls “the day of Jesus Christ.” Vs. 6. I think that Paul’s word here must be set against warning of Malachi. Yes, the prophet Malachi is correct. God’s messenger comes as a refining fire to burn away all the chaff. That will not be pleasant. But as unpleasant as the refining process is, the objective is to heal, purify and perfect. Burning away the impurities is simply part and parcel of bringing to completion the good work begun at our baptism into Jesus Christ. Malachi poses the question: “Who can endure the day of [God’s] coming and who can stand when he appears?” The answer, according to Paul, is everyone who clings in faith to Jesus’ promise to use that fiery day to complete in us what he began.
Luke’s introduction of John the Baptist begins with a roll call of all the movers and shakers in the ancient Mediterranean world. Tiberius, emperor of Rome, was the successor to Augustus Caesar, the man credited with imposing the “peace of Rome” over the world (or a good portion of it anyway). Tiberius was a great general responsible for expanding the imperial borders. As an emperor, he was much less effective. He was known to be moody, timid and disinterested in affairs of state. In many respects he was an inept leader riding the coattails of his illustrious predecessor. Pontius Pilate, who we will meet later on, became prefect of Judaea in 26 A.D. According to the Jewish historian, Josephus, he was ordered back to Rome after harshly suppressing a Samaritan uprising in about 37 A.D. Herod the “tetrarch” (meaning ruler of the fourth), was a son of the infamous Herod the Great, known in Matthew’s gospel for the slaughter of the children of Bethlehem. Also known as Herod Antipas, he was responsible for the imprisonment and execution of John the Baptist. Unlike his father who ruled all of Judea, Herod Antipas ruled only the region of Galilee. Philip the Tetrarch was also a son of Herod the Great and a half-brother of Herod Antipas. Philip inherited the northeast part of his father’s kingdom, Judah. Little is known about Lysanias other than that he was probably another regional ruler appointed by Rome as were Herod and Philip. His territory was to the north of Judah. For a thorough discussion of the political movers and shakers of this era, see Marshall, Howard I., Commentary on Luke, New International Greek Testament Commentary (c. 1978 by Paternoster Press, Ltd.) pp. 132-134.
High priests were selected and appointed by the Roman authorities, often with little input from the Jewish people. This practice did much to discredit the priesthood in the eyes of the Jewish people as a whole. So also did the onerous taxes collected for the support of the temple and the commercial activity in the temple courts-much of the proceeds of which went directly to the coffers of Rome. Thus, Jesus’ act of cleansing the temple not only offended Jerusalem’s religious elite. It was also a shot across the bow of Rome. Annas was high priest until 14 A.D. when he was deposed by the Roman authorities and replaced with his own son in law, Caiaphas. Schweizer, Eduard, The Good News According to Luke, (c. 1984 by John Knox Press) p. 69. It seems clear from the passion accounts in the gospels, however, that Annas continued to exercise a significant degree of authority behind the scenes. Indeed, Luke goes so far as to name both men as high priests, though technically there could only have been one. Ibid. 70.
“The word of the Lord came to John the son of Zachariah in the wilderness…” This is a common formula used throughout the Hebrew Scriptures. See, e.g., Jeremiah 1:1-3; Ezekiel 1:1-3; Micah 1:1-2. Because word and action are largely the same when it comes to God’s speech, it might be better to translate the phrase: “The word of God happened to John.” Ibid p. 70. The word of the Lord comes to a prophet, but never in a vacuum. The word comes in specific times, in certain places and during the reigns of particular kings. These contextual settings are important because ours is a God that takes history seriously. The word of God is always addressed to a specific audience in a specific circumstance. To put it differently, God is one who gets involved with the messy details of our lives. So much so that the Gospel of John can say that God’s Word ultimately becomes flesh and blood, entering into the messy business of birth, childhood, adolescence, suffering and death. The world into which this Incarnate Word comes is a violent, corrupt and dangerous place. This is not a fairytale we are about to hear. Yet because this is our world, a world filled with destructive evils we have made for ourselves and because we cannot seem to escape the consequences of what our hands have made, the news of Christ’s coming into the midst of our self-made mess with the healing touch of God is incredibly good.
John the Baptist is introduced with a passage from the first chapter of Isaiah. These words were addressed to the exiled Jews living in Babylon in the 6th Century B.C.E. The prophet sees in the immanent fall of Babylon to Persia a God given opportunity for his people to return home to Palestine. The “highway” through the desert refers to the way God is making from Babylon to Jerusalem for the exiles’ return. The people in Jesus’ time were exiles in their own land. They were governed by rulers appointed from Rome and the produce of their nation was being extracted by Roman taxation. Roman troops, ever present throughout Judea and Galilee, did not hesitate to crucify anyone who dared challenge Rome’s authority. Into this violent and conflicted land the word of the Lord came to John. What then will this word be? What powerful forces will it set in motion? What news will break forth from the mouth of this prophet? We will find out about that next week!
It is also worth noting that, after Luke goes to great lengths filling us in on the identity of various powers that be governing the empire from Rome to Galilee, he turns our focus abruptly away from all these “movers and shakers” to the wilderness. It is here that God speaks. It is here where the news is being made. The events that are about to shake the universe to its core are not being debated in the Roman Senate or decreed in the Temple of Jerusalem. They are being announced by a strange preacher in the heart of the wilderness where nothing newsworthy happens-or so we have been led to believe. Luke would have us know that the real news isn’t what gets printed in the papers. It is happening in the last places you would expect: in the wilderness; in a drafty old barn; on a rocky hill outside Jerusalem where miscreants are put to death; in the darkness of a tomb.
FIRST SUNDAY OF ADVENT
PRAYER OF THE DAY: Stir up your power, Lord Christ, and come. By your merciful protection alert us to the threatening dangers of our sins, and redeem us for your life of justice, for you live and reign with the Father and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.
“And there will be signs in the sun and the moon and stars, and upon the earth distress of nations in perplexity at the roaring of the sea and the waves, men fainting with fear and with foreboding of what is coming on the world; for the powers of the heavens will be shaken. And then they will see the Son of man coming in a cloud with great power and glory. Now when these things begin to take place, raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.” Luke 21:25-28.
Frankly, Jesus’ advice is counterintuitive. When I see threatening conditions beginning to materialize, my gut instinct is to “duck and cover.” I would not be at all inclined to raise my head at the approach of a tsunami or in the eye of a hurricane or in the midst of a terrorist attack. If I thought civilization as I know it were about to collapse, I would want to keep my head low, stock up on beans and bullets and hunker down in the root cellar. Raising your head under such dire circumstances is the last thing you want to do.
But Jesus is telling us that, “in, with, and under” all of these terrifying phenomena, is the sign of the coming of the Son of man, our redemption and salvation. In Luke’s telling of the story, this discussion about the Temple’s destruction and signs of the end times is a lead-in to the Last Supper. “I have yearned,” says Jesus, “to eat this Passover with you before I suffer.” Luke 22:15. It all comes down to the table.
Meals are big in the Gospel of Luke where it seems Jesus is always at, going to or coming from a dinner party. Jesus loved table fellowship and he didn’t much care whether he was sitting in the house of a notorious outcast filled with disreputable people or in the home of a respected religious leader. He would have us understand that our humanity depends on companionship every bit as much as our existence depends on eating. We are never more truly human than when these two primal needs are met at the table. In the most wretched refugee camp on the face of the earth, shared meals hold together the last frayed bonds of family and community that have somehow survived displacement and exile. In the wealthiest of neighborhoods, where most of all household food winds up being discarded, shared meals testify that we do not live by bread alone. That is why every table in every home, in every diner, in every tent, under every tree, in every human community is a sign of the redemption God intends for all creation. The table is where we encounter the coming of the Son of man.
At the table, we discover that we are sitting on the same level. We must rely upon one another to pass the turnips, ham and potatoes. At the table we learn the truth about who we are and the purpose for which we were created. So even as “the powers of the heavens” are shaken, the sign of the coming of the Son of man appears in our midst whenever we gather around the table. When seated around the table, we find the courage to raise our heads in hope.
Not surprisingly, the table is Jesus’ favorite metaphor for the reign of God. That great messianic banquet, Jesus tells us, will be an upside down feast at which the poor, the lame, the blind and the outcast are honored guests. Those who come to this feast with a sense of entitlement are rebuked and relegated to the most humble of seats (yet these seats also are places at the table). The ones fearing even to seek crumbs falling from that great table are invited to come forward and sit at its head. In that great supper of the Lamb, the high places are brought low, the valleys exalted and the way is made clear for the coming of the Lord.
On that note, here’s a poem by Joy Harjo.
Perhaps the World Ends Here
The world begins at a kitchen table. No matter what, we must eat to live.
The gifts of earth are brought and prepared, set on the table. So it has been since creation, and it will go on.
We chase chickens or dogs away from it. Babies teethe at the corners. They scrape their knees under it.
It is here that children are given instructions on what it means to be human. We make men at it, we make women.
At this table we gossip, recall enemies and the ghosts of lovers.
Our dreams drink coffee with us as they put their arms around our children. They laugh with us at our poor falling-down selves and as we put ourselves back together once again at the table.
This table has been a house in the rain, an umbrella in the sun.
Wars have begun and ended at this table. It is a place to hide in the shadow of terror. A place to celebrate the terrible victory.
We have given birth on this table, and have prepared our parents for burial here.
At this table we sing with joy, with sorrow. We pray of suffering and remorse. We give thanks.
Perhaps the world will end at the kitchen table, while we are laughing and crying, eating of the last sweet bite.
From The Woman who fell from the Sky (c. 1994 by Joy Harjo, pub. by W.W. Norton and Company, Inc.)
The time is immediately before 587 B.C.E in the reign of Judah’s last Davidic King, Zedekiah. The Babylonian army is besieging Jerusalem. The city, shut off from the outside world for over a year, is stricken with famine. Jeremiah the prophet is imprisoned for his preaching against Judah’s unfaithfulness to her God and specifically for declaring that God will not fight on her behalf against Babylon. To the contrary, God has brought the wrath of Babylon on Judah’s head as a judgment for her faithless reliance upon foreign military alliances, idolatry and cruel injustice against the poor. That is a message the people of Judah desperately do not want to hear. They want to believe that God will come through with a miracle at the last moment to save them from the Babylonians. The last thing King Zedekiah needs is for Jeremiah to be frightening his already demoralized army with dire predictions of defeat. So Jeremiah’s imprisonment is understandable. It appears as though the end has come for Judah. Indeed, the end has come for Judah as an independent nation. The end has come for Judah’s magnificent temple built by the hand of Solomon nearly five centuries before. There will be no going back to the past. The good old days are gone for good.
But the end of the past is not the extinction of the future. Israel’s story is far from over. As dark as the situation looks for Judah and for poor Jeremiah, Jeremiah nevertheless maintains that there is salvation and a future for Judah. A righteous branch will sprout from the corrupt line of David. Vs. 15. This one will rule Judah with justice and righteousness as the kings of Israel were intended to do. See, e.g., Psalm 45:4; Psalm 72:1-14. This promise shaped much of Israel’s faith in the difficult years of exile and domination under the empires of first Babylon, then Persia, then Macedonia and finally Rome. It continues to play an important role in Judaism today.
Yet even as this messianic hope can sustain a people in times of oppression, it is a dangerous hope. Israel’s history is checkered with persons claiming to be God’s messiah, rallying Israel behind them and leading Israel into disastrous military confrontations ending in crushing defeat. It was at least partly messianic fervor that led to a Jewish revolt in the late 60s A.D. which, in turn, brought the wrath of Rome down upon Jerusalem resulting in the destruction of her temple once again in 70 A.D. In 132 A.D. another revolt, led by the self-proclaimed messiah, Bar-Kokhba, brought on another fierce drubbing by Rome and further misery to the Jews.
As secular as we may be in this country, I believe that there is still a very deep longing within us for a messiah. I suspect that might be a large part of what lies behind the anger and lack of civility in our politics. We want to believe that there is someone out there who can take us to a better place; somebody who can solve all of our complex problems without asking us to sacrifice anything to get it done. Political strategists are all too aware of this deep messianic longing we have for a savior. Not surprisingly, then, they package their client candidates as messianic figures capable of meeting our unrealistic expectations. Unfortunately, when the campaigning is over and the hard work of governance begins, reality sets in. We discover that we have not elected the messiah. We have elected a fallible human being like ourselves who cannot work the sort of magic that makes all of our difficult problems go away. Predictably, we feel betrayed. In fits of anger, we turn upon the idols we have created, kick them off the pedestals where we placed them and erect new idols in their place.
Israel had to learn (and hopefully we will one day learn as well) that no human being is able to bear the weight of messianic hope. Furthermore, that hope cannot become reality without a fundamental change in our hearts and minds, as the prophet Jeremiah rightly observed. Jeremiah 31:31-34; Jeremiah 32:39. A change of leaders or a change in government without a change of heart is futile. The truth is, the Messiah, the Davidic branch that rules with justice and righteousness came-and we killed him. We were not then and we are not yet ready to live in the sort of world we long for. But the good news of Advent is that God did not wait for us to be ready. Jesus comes to us while we are still headstrong in our self-destructive ways. Jesus embraces us even as we struggle to break free from that embrace. What is more, the love with which Jesus embraces us is stronger than sin and death. It refuses to let go. So the message of the season is clear: Here comes the Messiah, ready or not.
This is one of the “acrostic” psalms, the others being Psalm 119; Psalm 9; Psalm 10; Psalm 34; Psalm 37; Psalm 111; Psalm 112; and Psalm 145. Each new verse begins with the next letter in order of the Hebrew Alphabet. An English example might look like this:
Awesome is our God and Creator.
Breathtaking are God’s mighty works.
Clearly, the Lord is God and there is no other.
And so on down to letter Z. In addition to assisting a new reader in learning her ABCs, this style of composition assists in memorization of the psalm. Memorization is critical in a culture where the vast majority lack reading skills and books are readily available only to priests. Stylistic similarities between this psalm and Psalm 34 suggest that they might have been composed by the same author. Rogerson, J.W. & McKay, J.W. Psalms 1-50, The Cambridge Bible Commentary (c. 1977 by Cambridge University Press) pp. 112-113. I would exercise caution in making such a judgment, however. The stylistic conventions used by the psalmists were very likely shared widely so that their appearance in multiple psalms by different authors would not be unexpected.
The psalm is a prayer for salvation and protection from enemies-something you would not learn unless you read the entire psalm. Verses 1-10, which make up this Sunday’s reading, constitute an affirmation of trust in God’s promises. This trust in God’s faithfulness is the basis for the psalmist’s plea for help. The psalmist knows that God is the protector of the helpless and of those who trust in God’s promises. The psalmist is well aware of God’s long history of faithfulness to Israel and so feels confident in calling upon God for assistance in his or her own particular situation.
I find particularly moving the first half of the third verse: “Let not those who wait for you be ashamed.” Vs. 3. Advent is about nothing if not about waiting. And unfortunately for nervous, impatient and hurried people like us, we have a God who likes to take his sweet time. God waited for four hundred years while the children of Israel languished in slavery before sending Moses to liberate them. God led Israel for forty years in the wilderness before bringing her into the Promised Land. God sat with Israel for seventy years in exile before bringing her home. After hearing that his dear friend Lazarus was ill, Jesus waited a full two days before even beginning his journey to Bethany where Lazarus lived. In a world where time is measured in nanoseconds, where everything is urgently needed yesterday and cries for immediate responses come from every direction, it is maddening to hear the command: “Be still and know that I am God.” Psalm 46:10. It is because we are a frenzied people who imagine our “historic” presidential elections, our “Giant Black Friday Sales” and our never ending string of international, economic and social crises are so very important that we need a slow God. God’s salvation, like God’s Kingdom, will come in God’s own way and in God’s own time. God will not be rushed. So we might just as well stop running around like chickens with our heads cut off and learn to wait patiently for God to act.
Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians was written about 45-52 A.D., making it the earliest of the New Testament writings. The purpose of the letter is to encourage the struggling church in Thessalonica. According to the Book of Acts, Paul was forced to leave the congregation early in its development (Acts 16:11-40) and he was understandably concerned that it lacked the maturity and solid leadership to survive under the pressures of persecution. Paul sent his fellow worker, Timothy, to visit and encourage the little congregation. I Thessalonians 3:1-2. Paul was overjoyed to learn from Timothy that his congregation had not merely survived, but was thriving. I Thessalonians 3:6-8. The lesson for this Sunday reflects Paul’s thankfulness and relief upon receiving this good news.
Paul’s prayer is for an opportunity to visit the congregation himself. He prays that, in any case, the Lord may make the congregation “increase and abound in love to one another and to all people so that Christ may establish your hearts in holiness before our God and Father, at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.” Vs. 12. This prayer brings into sharp relief how the church is a community that lives out of the future. The future is Jesus. Yet it is Jesus’ presence with his church now that prepares it for the future. For the church, the future is now. Among us, Jesus is already recognized as King. The day will come when every knee will bow and every tongue confess Jesus as Lord. But the church does not wait for that day to acknowledge Jesus as Lord and live for him.
The Revised Common Lectionary used by the ELCA, Roman Catholics and a number of other protestant churches provides a three-year plan for Sunday readings beginning at the start of each new church year in the season of Advent. For each Sunday and festival, four readings are suggested and include: a Gospel reading, an Old Testament reading, a reading from the Psalms, and a New Testament reading. Each year of the lectionary centers on one of the synoptic Gospels: Matthew, Mark and Luke. Reading from the Gospel of John are included in the major seasons of Christmas, Lent, and Easter. This year we focus on the Gospel of Luke. So before we begin looking specifically at this Sunday’s lesson, let me say just a few words about Luke.
The Gospel of Luke is probably best known for its story of the Nativity. Only Luke tells us of Elizabeth and Zachariah, the parents of John the Baptist. Only in Luke do we find the story of the angel Gabriel coming to Mary and telling her of the child she is about to bear. Luke alone tells us of the journey to Bethlehem, the birth of the Christ child in the stable and the angels’ tidings of joy to the shepherds. Luke is the only Gospel writer who tells us anything at all about the childhood of Jesus.
The Gospel of Luke also has many other popular stories not found in the other gospels. For example, the Prodigal Son, the Rich Man and Lazarus, the Good Samaritan all are parables recorded in Luke alone. More than any of the other Gospels, Luke reveals to us the important role played by women in Jesus’ ministry. Elizabeth, Mary and the prophetess Anna have high profile involvement in the story line. Luke’s gospel tells us about the group of women who provided logistical and financial support to Jesus and the disciples. Women are frequently prominent in Jesus’ healings, his parables and in his teaching.
Perhaps the most remarkable thing about is that he was the only Gospel writer who also produced a sequel that we know as the Book of the Acts of the Apostles. In Acts, Luke narrates the early years of the church, its early encounters with the gentile world and the conversion and ministry of the Apostle Paul. So too, the most irritating thing about Luke-Acts is its lack of “closure.” The Gospel ends with the disciples returning to the Temple in Jerusalem (where his gospel began) rejoicing and gathering for prayer waiting to be filled with the promised Holy Spirit. The Book of Acts ends with the Apostle Paul under house arrest in Rome, but still preaching and teaching from his place of imprisonment. We never find out what happens to him. It is as though Luke has deliberately avoided bringing his story to a fitting end because he knows that it is not over yet. The drama of the church in mission to the world continues. We are invited to become a part of this exciting story as it continues to unfold in our age.
Now for this week’s lesson. As is the case for Mark, Jesus’ prediction of the Jerusalem Temple’s destruction follows upon his noting the widow’s payment to the Temple treasury all she had to live on. For the connections here, see my post for Sunday, November 8th. The disciples ask Jesus when the destruction of the Temple will take place, assuming no doubt that this event would mark the beginning of the end of time. Not so, says Jesus. Nation will rise up against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be great earthquakes, and in various places famines and pestilences; and there will be great signs from heaven.” Luke 21:10-11. But that does not necessarily signal the end. The church has a long road to travel through days of persecution, suffering and opposition. Luke 21:12. The church’s job is to bear faithful witness to the coming of God’s kingdom in Jesus. Luke 21:13. The destruction of Jerusalem is a piece of all this, but it is not the harbinger of the end.
Then, in our lesson for Sunday, comes Jesus’ enumeration of the “signs” of the coming of the Son of man. What are we to make of them? It should be obvious by now that ominous signs have occurred throughout history. Not so very long ago, Hurricane Sandy gave us a good deal of “distress and perplexity at the roaring of the sea and its waves.” Vs. 25. Someone suggested to me recently that perhaps “God is trying to tell us something” through Sandy. Maybe so. But I doubt it means that the end is near. Still and all, I think we might rightly refer to hurricanes, earthquakes and other natural disasters as “signs” in some sense. They remind us that the earth upon which we stand is not as solid as it appears. Our orderly lives are not as stable as we think they are. Though we don’t like to think about it, we are always just one genetically altered cell, one virus, one careless driving error away from the end of the world. If we ever thought our years of careful saving and investment could give us a measure of security, the crash of 2007 surely disabused us of any such fantasy. International co-existence, economic stability and ecological balance are extremely fragile creatures. It takes very little to throw them off kilter. Terrorist attacks, hurricanes, wars and famines all serve to remind us how fragile and vulnerable we are.
Now that should make us all rather paranoid, but hear what Jesus says: “Now when these things begin to take place, look up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.” Vs. 28. For the new creation to be born, the old has to die. And whether you see these “signs” as death throws or as birth pangs depends on whether you view them through the cross. Jesus meant what he said when he told his disciples that his own present generation would live to see “all these things” take place. Vs. 32. The presence of God with human beings-the longed for hope of Israel-is put to death on a cross. It doesn’t get much worse than that. In fact, you could say that the worst thing that could ever happen to the world has already happened. The world murdered its last, best hope. Yet even this dark and terrible sin could not deter God from God’s redemptive purpose for the world. In the midst of death, God was working the miracle of new life. And so we can confess with St. Paul that “Though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed every day.” II Corinthians 4:16 Even in the signs of death and destruction, disciples of Jesus discern a new creation struggling to be born.
SUNDAY OF CHRIST THE KING
PRAYER OF THE DAY: Almighty and ever-living God, you anointed your beloved Son to be priest and sovereign forever. Grant that all the people of the earth, now divided by the power of sin, may be united by the glorious and gentle rule of Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.
“The mobilization of the French police and gendarmes against this terrorist organization will be total and merciless.” Francois Hollande, President of France.
I can fully understand this response to what was by far the most brutal and far reaching act of terror committed on French soil since the Second World War. I remember all too well how the same sentiments were expressed by our leaders here in the United States in the wake of the attacks on September 11, 2001. Crying out for vengeance after having been grievously and wrongfully wounded is a very human reaction. Perhaps that is why we find so many such cries throughout the Book of Psalms. God, it seems, is entirely open to our expression of such feelings of outrage and our desire to see retribution visited upon our enemies.
Nevertheless, as graphic as their demands for punishment for their enemies might be, the psalmists leave the business of carrying it out to the Lord. Even the psalmist who blesses anyone who might bash out the brains of his/her enemies’ babies does not undertake that task him/herself. Psalm 137:9. And that for good reason. At our most objective best we find it hard discern what is just and fair when it comes to dishing out retribution. We are, of course, far from our most objective best after having been deeply hurt. All of this suggests to me that perhaps the day after a terrorist attack is not the best time to respond.
So, given time to cool down, how should we respond to an act of terror? Much depends on who the “we” is. Beyond our identity as American or French citizens, we are disciples of Jesus. We live first and foremost under the reign of God Jesus declares. I can already sense that some of my readers are tensing up. “Don’t drag Jesus and the Sermon on the Mount into this! These are terrorists. They won’t just strike us on the cheek. They will take our heads off if we let them!” The assumption is that, at some point, violence becomes both necessary and inevitable. If not now, when?
Similarly, in numerous conversations I have had with death penalty proponents, I get the question: “How would you feel if your mother, daughter, grandma were brutally murdered? Can you honestly say you would want the killer to be spared, possibly released again at some point?” If I show the slightest hesitation in my response, that is taken as some sort of moral victory. No doubt it is just that. I cannot deny that a brutal attack on someone I dearly love could transform this white, privileged, protestant, slightly left of center male into a blood thirsty vigilante. What matters, though, is not what I would do if my loved one were murdered, but what God did when his beloved Son was in fact murdered. When the Son God sent for the life of the world was brutally attacked and tortured to death, God did not respond with retribution. Instead, God raised up his crucified Son and gave him back to the very ones that crucified him. It is this crucified and risen Son that we call our king. That means fighting terrorism the way Jesus does: by loving and forgiving your enemy-even if it proves to be the death of you.
It seems that the presidential wannabees in both parties are vying to demonstrate that, if elected, they would be the “most merciless” in dealing with terror. But I am quite sure that excluding mercy from any response to those who have wronged us is quite out of the question for disciples of Jesus. That does not mean, of course, that no response is warranted. The venerable “just war” teaching, recognized in most Christian traditions, leaves room for the potential use of military means to deal with aggression. But even when resort is made to military force, it is always the last resort and the objective is always to restore peace and reconciliation. War, in Christian tradition, is never an instrument of retribution or vengeance.
Perhaps the most urgent contribution disciples of Jesus can make to the war on terror is changing the direction of the conversation about it. It seems to me that there are some important questions our leaders should be asking. What do the followers of the ISIS want? What are their grievances? What would reconciliation with ISIS look like? What sacrifices are we prepared to make for the sake of a just peace and reconciliation? I don’t hear those questions being asked by any of our governments. It seems to me, though, that they must be asked and every effort must be made to answer them before any military response can be considered “just.” If we don’t raise these critical questions, who will?
I discussed at some length the historical context and the outline of the Book of Daniel in my last post for Sunday, November 15, 2015. In short, the book was written to encourage the Jewish people during the reign of Antiochus Epiphanes over Jerusalem from 167-164 B.C.E. Antiochus used barbaric means to force the Jews in Jerusalem to abandon their faith and to embrace Greek religion and culture. Those who resisted him were often subjected to torture and execution. In this Sunday’s lesson the prophet Daniel sees God, “the ancient of days” (vs. 9) give all rule and authority to “one like a son of man.” Vss. 13-14. It is not clear whether this one is understood to be a human ruler or an angel of God. His rule, however, will be universal. Unlike the empires of Babylon, Persia and Greece, which invariably fracture under the weight of so many ambitious rulers seeking dominion, the kingdom of the son of man will remain forever.
As is usually the case for apocalyptic literature, the message is one of hope and encouragement. Despite all appearances to the contrary, God is still at work in the midst of all the global political, social and military turmoil that is turning everyone’s life upside down. It is tempting to sum up all of this with the trite phrase “God is in control.” I don’t care much for that assertion, however. Control is something you exercise over your lawn mower or automobile. It is not something you exercise over someone you love. Nothing ruins friendship, marriage, family and community quite as effectively as someone’s desire to exercise control. Arguably, God could come with a show of force, as he does in the Left Behind books, and impose his reign by sheer might. But that would make God little more than Hitler on steroids. God does not want to reign over creation in that way.
I don’t think God engineers the events of history so that they occur in accord with some predetermined plan. I do not believe that the murder of six million Jews was part of God’s design. Nor do I believe that God wills cancer, auto accidents, hurricanes and earthquakes. Is God triumphant over all of these things? To be sure, but God’s triumphal victory is a strange kind of victory. It is God’s patience rather than any exercise of power that carries the day. God does not fight fire with fire. That only results in a bigger fire. Instead, God responds to the wastes of our wrath with forgiveness, patience and eternal love. God does not clobber evil. God simply outlasts it. Against God’s eternal determination to save us, our stubborn resistance finally just runs out of steam. That might take some time, but God is nothing if not rich in time. The redemption of all creation is too important a job to rush.
In this psalm the God of Israel is acclaimed king, though the proper translation is a matter of some dispute. Some scholars claim that the phrase echoes the proclamation that a human ruler has been elevated to kingship, i.e., “Absalom is King,” (II Samuel 15:10) or “Jehu is King” (II King 9:13). The Psalm might have been part of the Feast of Tabernacles liturgy. Rogerson, J.W. & McKay, J.W., Psalms 51-100, (c. 1977 Cambridge University Press) p. 209; Bruggemann, Walter, The Message of the Psalms, Augsburg Old Testament Studies (c. 1984 by Augsburg Publishing Company) p. 146. If this be the case, then the proper reading would be “The Lord has become king.” This hymn contains traces of ancient mythology reflecting a battle between the waters or the great sea monster, Tiamat and the Babylonian deity, Marduk.. See vss 3-4. Such mythological imagery is clearly reflected in the Genesis creation and flood narratives, though the “waters” in Genesis are not portrayed as hostile enemies of God. Instead, they are the instruments of God’s creative power (Genesis 1:2) and of God’s judgment against a sinful world. Genesis 6-8. Read in this way, the psalm can be understood as a declaration of God’s ascendency over all other gods and forces of nature. The lack of any specific denial of the existence of other gods argues for an earlier date for the composition of this psalm, surely before the Babylonian exile of 587 B.C.E.
Other scholars are inclined to interpret the psalm as a simple assertion that God is king. Ibid. p. 210; Anderson, Bernhard W., Out of the Depths: The Psalms Speak to us Today (c. 1983 by Bernhard W. Anderson, pub. by The Westminster Press) p. 176. Such a confession declares by implication that all other rulers who claim the title of “king” are mere pretenders. In short, it is a political statement. Such an interpretation would comport with a distaste for human monarchy consistent with much post-exilic Judaism fueled by prophetic criticism of Judah’s kings and their unfaithful, disastrous policies. It would also be entirely at home in an environment where, as was the case in post-exilic Judaism, such kings as there were ruled over empires whose armies occupied Judah and Jerusalem exercising varying degrees of oppression. Though the kings of the earth may make proud claims of sovereignty, God alone rules the earth and God only is worthy of the title “king.”
Whenever this psalm was composed and however one might interpret the opening acclimation that God is King, the message is clear. God reigns to the exclusion of all others who claim divine sovereignty. Indeed, the celebration of Christ the King that we observe this coming Sunday was instituted in 1925 by Pope Pius XI in response to what he characterized as growing secularism. The old monarchies governing Europe had been dissolved by this time and had given way to the modern nation state. The church’s political power and social status were substantially diminished under these new regimes as the state increasingly asserted its autonomy and independence from religious influence.
There was more at stake, however, than the church’s loss of political muscle. The new secular environment had become a breeding ground for dangerous and dehumanizing ideologies elevating loyalty to the nation state and its rulers over all other claims. As Pope Pius saw it, this new nationalism amounted to idolatry, constituting a threat both to the Christian faith and to human worth and dignity. Sadly, the horrific events that unfolded in the following decades proved him right. The celebration of Christ the King serves to remind us that, while the church throughout the world lives under many different governments all asserting their claims to the loyalty of her members, yet there is for the church only one King. A nation is only a group of people joined together by culture, ethnicity and force of humanly designed covenants. The church is a living Body joined as one by Christ, its Head. When loyalty to the Body of Christ conflicts with our allegiance to flag or country, “we must obey God rather than human authority.” Acts 5:29.
That does not preclude obedience to human governmental authority. To the contrary, government is a gift of God given for the sake of ordering our lives for good. Yet in a sinful and rebellious world, government tends to overstep its bounds and claim authority that rightfully belongs to God alone. No government has authority to command what God forbids. No government may exercise power that rightly belongs to God alone. No flag of any nation must ever fly higher in our hearts than the cross of Christ.
The Book of Revelation is, as I have said before, the most frequent victim of preacher malpractice in the Bible. Many people flock to this book with an insatiable interest in discovering when and how the world will end. If centuries of clever and complex interpretation along these lines proves anything at all, it is only that Revelation is entirely unsuitable for such a purpose. The book was written to encourage the persecuted churches of Asia Minor with their immediate struggles rather than to spawn speculation by 21st Century suburbanites about the distant future.
Our brief lesson for Sunday is taken from a larger greeting from the author of the Book of Revelation, John of Patmos, addressed to the churches of Asia Minor (modern day Turkey). Though the precise time of its writing is a matter of scholarly dispute. Most New Testament commentators agree that it was composed late in the 1st Century C.E. Christians were not under direct, systematic persecution at this time. Nonetheless, their relationship with the Jewish community was deteriorating. They were looked upon with suspicion and contempt by the imperial culture. Where it was acknowledged in every patriotic ceremony and civic event that “Caesar is Lord,” the confession that “Jesus is Lord” amounted to an act of sedition. Collins, Adela Yarbro, “Reading the Book of Revelation in the Twentieth Century,” Interpretation, vol. 40, No. 3 (July 1986) p. 240. Thus, when John confesses Jesus as “ruler of kings on earth” (vs. 5), he was firing a shot across Caesar’s bow that could well explain why he was living in exile.
Like the Book of Daniel, Revelation is written to a people living under some degree of persecution or, at the very least, the threat of persecution for their faith. Under such circumstances, it might seem as though God has abandoned his people or that God is powerless to save. How else can one explain the innocent suffering of Christians in Asia Minor? On a more universal plain, one might well ask how a God acclaimed both good and supreme over the earth can fail to intervene in horrific events like Auschwitz, the Cambodian killing fields or the carnage last week in Paris. The Book of Revelation takes this suffering seriously. Throughout its many chapters John makes clear how the “beast” that is the Roman Empire is not merely the enemy of Christians, but “the destroyer of the earth.” Revelation 11:18. Yet God’s victory lies not in the ability to inflect even greater destruction through retribution, but in patient and enduring love exemplified in the faithful lives of the saints.
It is important to recognize that God overcomes the forces of evil throughout Revelation by means of the “word.” When John describes his vision of Jesus, the only weapon Jesus has is the two edged sword issuing “from his mouth.” Revelation 1:16. When Jesus Christ returns sitting upon a white horse ready to conquer his enemies, he is referred to as “Word of God.” The weapon with which he smites the nations is “the sharp sword that issues from his mouth.” Revelation 19:15. In short, it is the incarnate Word of the church’s preaching and teaching by which the political and military machinery of Roman oppression will be overcome. That is the only weapon God wields and it is the only arrow in the disciple’s quiver. God prevails through the incarnate Word by which hearts are won over through faithful witness and preaching. As many of us might be singing this Sunday, “For not with swords loud clashing nor roll of stirring drums, but deeds of love and mercy the heavenly kingdom comes.” “Lead on, O King Eternal!” Evangelical Lutheran Worship # 805.
This brief snippet from the lengthy interchange between Jesus and Pontius Pilate is laced with irony. Pilate stands in the shoes of Caesar, the one acclaimed “king,” yet as John’s passion story unfolds, it becomes ever clearer that he has no real authority. Pilate must go out to meet his Jewish subjects in the portico because they refuse to contaminate themselves by coming into his courtroom. Though he purports to pass judgment on Jesus, it is Pilate who comes under judgment. Pilate’s tenuous hold on authority weakens with each verse. His interrogation of Jesus gets completely away from him. He cannot get Jesus either to admit that he is a king and so incriminate himself, or to deny his kingship and so pave the way for his release. So far from wielding kingly authority, Pilate finds himself bullied, intimidated and blackmailed by those who are supposed to be his subjects. He sounds almost pathetic when he protests to Jesus, “Do you not know that I have power to release you and power to crucify you?” John 19:10 “Power?” says Jesus. “You must be joking. You have no power. You know as well as I do that this is entirely out of your hands. God is at work here and there is nothing you or your little empire can do to stop it.” (my highly paraphrased rendition of Jesus’ response in John 19:11).
This gospel lesson brings into sharp focus the issue of the day: Is Jesus our King? What sort of King is he? Obviously, he is not the sort of king his accusers are making him out to be, that is, a messianic partisan seeking to overthrow Rome by violence. His kingly authority is not the sort that can get the charges against him dismissed. Yet there clearly is authority here. Jesus is the one character who is not driven by fear, anger or jealousy. Jesus alone is where he is because that is where he chose to be. Jesus is not a victim of circumstance. He is not an innocent bystander caught in the crossfire of somebody else’s fight. Jesus has stepped into Pilate’s court to bear witness to the truth. Pilate cannot handle the truth, but he cannot silence it either. The truth shines through the thin venire of Pilate’s pretended authority and imagined control.
Of course, in the final analysis the truth is not a what, but a who. Jesus is the truth and to know and trust him is to know the truth. It is our bold testimony that we cannot see rightly or understand what is true apart from submission to the kingly authority of Jesus.
TWENTY-FIFTH SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST
PRAYER OF THE DAY: Almighty God, your sovereign purpose brings salvation to birth. Give us faith to be steadfast amid the tumults of this world, trusting that your kingdom comes and your will is done through your Son, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.
I can’t fault the disciples for wanting to find meaning in the destruction of the temple-or in wars, earthquakes and other natural disasters. Knowing why things happen makes an out-of-control world seem just a little less out of control. I think that is what conspiracy theories are all about. They make sense out of the senseless. People for whom the world is changing too fast, people who fear losing the America they once knew, people who feel powerless before a tidal wave of novelty they can’t stop-they take comfort in having a reason-any reason-for what is happening to them. “It’s the damn liberal media,” “it’s all those illegals coming in and taking our jobs,” “it’s the gay agenda,” “it’s the war against Christianity,” or “it’s that Obamacare.” It is comforting to put a face on the faceless terror that haunts me. I would rather believe that someone is out to get me than to believe in a soulless universe that doesn’t care what happens to me and that I am not important enough for anyone to bother persecuting. It is unbearable to think that my own suffering or that of the rest of the world has no point. I think that is why, contrary to Jesus’ explicit warnings, we are led astray in every generation by preachers who claim to know what Jesus himself did not know-namely, the time for the end of all things. That is why we are prone to fall for advertisements from financial experts who claim to know what the market will do in the future. It is why presidential hopefuls with simple explanations for what is wrong with our country and easy solutions that cost us nothing always find a ready audience. We want to believe that it all makes sense. “The truth is out there…”
There is a part of me that yearns to believe at least some of this. I would like to know what direction the future will take. That might give me a measure of control over my life. But Jesus makes it quite clear that such knowledge is beyond us. The only sense to be made of the universe is the sense God makes of it. That is why Jesus concludes his remarks about the destruction of the temple with one simple world: “watch.” Mark 13:37. (or, “stay awake” as the NRSV renders it.) Of course, the one we are called upon to watch is Jesus-not the geopolitical forces that will soon level Jerusalem and the Temple. In the very next chapter, we learn that, notwithstanding three additional reminders, Jesus’ disciples did not stay awake, but fell asleep at their posts in the Garden of Gethsemane. Mark 14:32-42. They slept through and fled from the one thing that could have made sense of their world, namely, the cross and resurrection of Jesus.
It is perhaps for this reason that our ancient liturgical practices finally evolved what we have come to know as the “church year.” We have learned that Jesus is the sense God makes of our lives. As this church year draws to a close next Sunday, we are reminded once again that, whenever the end comes, that end will be Jesus. When the new year begins on the first Sunday of Advent, we will be reminded that the universe was, as Paul says, created in hope. God’s hope for the universe unfolds in the faithful life, obedient death and glorious resurrection of Jesus. The way ahead lies in following Jesus as he lives God’s future kingdom now, a life that always takes the shape of the cross in a sinful world. The direction of obedience is loving our neighbor as though there were no class distinctions, national borders, racial divides or cultural hostilities-regardless whether that is effective, practical or pleasant. Whenever the kingdom comes in its fullness, we pray that God will have shaped us into the kind of people who can live in it joyfully, peacefully and obediently. Where we stand between beginning and end, hope and thanksgiving, promise and the fulfilment is anybody’s guess. But that we so stand is sure. For now, that is enough.
There is no getting around it: the Book of Daniel is a strange piece of literature. It is usually classified “apocalyptic” as is the Book of Revelation. Both of these books employ lurid images of fabulous beasts and cosmic disasters to make sense out of the authors’ experiences of severe persecution and suffering. In the case of Daniel, the crisis is the oppression of the Jews under the Macedonian tyrant, Antiochus Epiphanes whose short but brutal reign lasted from 175-164 B.C.E. Antiochus was determined to spread Greek culture to his conquered territories and to that end tried to stamp out all distinctive Jewish practices. Antiochus’ most offensive act was his desecration of the Temple in Jerusalem with an altar to Zeus upon which he sacrificed pigs. He compelled his Jewish henchmen to eat pork-strictly forbidden under Mosaic law-and threatened with torture and death those who refused. Antiochus considered himself a god and was thought to be mad by many of his contemporaries. Though many Jews resisted to the point of martyrdom efforts to turn them from their faith, others were more inclined to submit to or even collaborate with Antiochus.
The early chapters of the Book of Daniel (Daniel 1-6) tell the tale of its namesake, a young Jew by the name of Daniel taken captive and deported three hundred years earlier by the Babylonians under Nebuchadnezzar. This is Daniel of lions’ den fame. This and other stories about Daniel’s faithfulness in the face of persecution under King Nebuchadnezzar are retold in the new context of Syro-Greek tyranny. They bring comfort and encouragement for Jews struggling to remain faithful under the reign of Antiochus. It is as though the author were saying, “Look people, we have been through this before. We can get through it again.”
The latter chapters contain apocalyptic material that, like Revelation, has given rise to no end of speculation over what it might have to say about Twenty-First Century events and when the world will end. Such concerns, however, were far from the mind of the author of Daniel. His concern was with the present suffering of his people and sustaining them as they waited for a better day. Whatever else biblical apocalyptic may have to say, it is overwhelmingly hopeful, expressing confident faith in God’s promise to abide with his chosen people, save them from destruction and lead them into a radically renewed creation.
Our text for this Sunday comes at the conclusion of Daniel’s apocalyptic visions and constitutes about the only specific mention of the resurrection of the dead found in the Hebrew Scriptures. The author promises that “those who are wise shall shine like the brightness of the firmament; and those who turn many to righteousness, like the stars forever.” Vs. 4. The “wise” are those who remain faithful to their God and refuse to submit to Antiochus’ demands to abandon their faith. They will shine eternally just as they shone in their faithful martyrdom. Some folks will awake from death to face everlasting shame. Vs. 2. These are the ones who have given in to Antiochus and betrayed their faith. This punishment of everlasting shame for the unfaithful should not to be understood as hellfire or damnation. It is rather the shame of discovering that their lives have been lived on the wrong side of history. They cannot shine in the resurrection because they chose not to shine when they had the opportunity in life to bear witness to their God. Their punishment is having to live forever with the knowledge that in seeking to save their lives at the cost of their faith, they have wasted them. Perhaps that is even worse than hellfire.
The fiery ordeal faced by the authors of Daniel and of Revelation is hard for most of us to imagine. I expect that our Christian sisters and brothers in Syria, Egypt and Iraq can relate to these texts far better than us. Yet in more subtle ways, I believe that American disciples of Jesus are faced with decisions that require them to take a stand for or against Jesus. In a culture where outright lies are camouflaged as “negative campaigning,” “editorial opinion” and “advertising puffery,” truthful speech is often unwelcome. It takes courage to be the only one to come to the defense of a person under group criticism. It requires uncommon (though not unheard of) valor for a high school student to take the risk of befriending the kid everyone else picks on. Even in a culture where being a disciple of Jesus is not against the law, strictly speaking, following Jesus still means taking up the cross.
The good news here is that persecution, failure and even death do not constitute the end of the game. God promises to work redemption through what we perceive to be futile efforts at changing a stubbornly wicked world. Lives spent struggling against starvation, poverty and injustice for Jesus’ sake will not have been wasted. Neither will be the dollars contributed to this good work. But what of the times we have buckled under social pressure? What of the many times we have denied Jesus? The evil we have done and the good we have left undone cannot simply be erased from history. How can I live in the resurrection kingdom with those I have wounded, ignored or failed to help? Will not a kingdom shaped by the Sermon on the Mount be an eternal reminder of my failures?
I am not sure Daniel can give us much help here, but Jesus surely can. We are spiritual descendants of the disciples who misunderstood Jesus, betrayed him, denied him and deserted him, leaving him to die alone. Yet when Jesus returns from death and finds these cowardly disciples hiding behind locked doors, he says to them, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” John 20:21. In other words, “get out there and shine!” In Jesus we discover the God of the second chance-and the third and the fourth.
Although perhaps edited and recomposed for use in worship at the second temple rebuilt by the exiles returning from Babylon, this psalm contains elements reflecting a very early stage in Israel’s history possibly dating back to the time of the Judges. See Weiser, Artur, The Psalms, The Old Testament Library (c. 1962 by S.C.M. Press, Ltd.) p. 172. As Israel began to settle into the land of Canaan, she struggled to remain faithful to her God even as she was surrounded by cults of Canaanite origin. The urgent dependence upon rain that goes with agriculture in semi-arid regions made the Canaanite fertility religions tempting alternatives to faith in the God of Israel whose actions seemed so far in the past. The prophets were constantly calling Israel away from the worship of these Canaanite deities and urging her to trust her own God to provide for her agricultural needs. The existence of “other gods” is not specifically denied in this psalm, but the psalmist makes clear that they have no power or inclination to act in the merciful and redemptive way that Israel’s God acts. The psalmist opens his prayer with a plea for God to preserve him or her, but goes on to express unlimited confidence in God’s saving power and merciful intent. Vs. 1-2.
“As for the saints in the land, they are the noble, in whom is all my delight.” Vs. 3. The Hebrew is a little choppy at this verse. One English translation renders the verse “The gods whom earth holds sacred are all worthless and cursed are all who make them their delight.” (New English Bible). The authors arrive at this contrary meaning by translating the term “zakik” as “gods” rather than “saints.” This translation is suspect, however, given the frequent use of the term to describe the “upright,” the “holy ones” and the “faithful.” Thus, most commentators agree that the term is being used to designate faithful worshipers of Israel’s God as distinguished from those who practice idolatry. While this declaration fits well into the faithful piety of Jews suffering under the reign of Antiochus Epiphanes described above, it would be equally at home among Israelites struggling to remain faithful to Israel’s God under the pressure of Canaanite cultural influences. Thus, it is difficult, if not impossible, to date the psalm or this fragment of it with much certainty. Rogerson, J.W. & McKay, J.W., Psalms 1-50, The Cambridge Bible Commentary (c. 1977 by Cambridge University Press) p. 66.
The psalmist has experienced the salvation and protection of God throughout life and is therefore confident that God’s comforting presence will not be lost even in death. Vs. 13. It is important to note, however, that this psalm does not speculate about any “after life.” The notion of any sort of post death existence was not a part of Hebrew thought until much later in the development of Israel’s faith (See discussion of the lesson from Daniel above). Yet one cannot help but sense a confidence on the part of the psalmist that not even death can finally overcome the saving power of God. It is therefore possible to say that the hope of the resurrection is present if only in embryonic form.
I have written at length in the last three posts about my take on Hebrews. I will not do so again here, but wish to call attention to what I believe is the practical takeaway: “And let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day approaching.” Vss. 24-25. This is why we go to church. Being a disciple of Jesus is not a private matter. Compassion, generosity, hospitality and courageous witness do not come naturally. We need to be “provoked” to these acts. The preaching of the good news of Jesus Christ is just such a provocation. When we fully comprehend the generosity God has shown to us, we discover a newfound ability to be generous with one another. But generosity cannot be exercised in a vacuum. You need someone to be generous toward. You need people to forgive and people who can point out to you the sin you often fail to see in yourself-and forgive it. All this talk we have heard the last couple of weeks about Jesus being the final sacrifice for us; the only priest we will ever need and the temple wherein God’s saving presence can be experienced-it all boils down to this: go to church.
Now some might object to that as overly simplistic. Church after all is not a place we go, but a people we are called to be. True enough. Still, in order to be that people of Jesus, you need to meet together. You need to be in the presence of one another, serving one another, speaking the truth to one another in love and encouraging one another. You cannot be the church without going to church. If you continue in the book of Hebrews, you will note that chapter 11 constitutes a roll call of saints who have given their all for the Kingdom of God. The point? “Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and sin which clings so closely and let us run with perseverance the race that is before us…” Hebrews 12:1. This is all about encouragement. We all need that! We need to be reminded that we are not alone. We are walking a path well worn by the saints from Abraham and Sarah to the Apostle Paul. We are encouraged by their witness and supported by the prayers of a worshiping community that is there for us every week. Whether we are singing hymns, drinking coffee or standing side by side dishing up food for the homeless the Spirit is at work building the bonds that will hold us together on the day when all things are made new. So don’t neglect to meet together! Your presence with us on Sunday is more important than you know!
If you read my post of Sunday, November 8, 2015, you already know my take on this passage and that it relates back to the story of the widow’s “offering” for the temple treasury. Jesus speaks an uncompromising word of judgment upon the temple and its corrupt and corrupting practices. It is tempting to identify overly much with Jesus, as though, of course, had we been there we would have all been nodding in agreement. But for all pious Jews-which Jesus and his disciples all were-the temple was a precious gift of God. According to the scriptures, God “caused his name to dwell” upon the temple in Jerusalem. It was the symbol of God’s gracious presence for the people Israel. Upon dedicating the first temple, King Solomon prayed: “I have built thee an exalted house, a place for thee to dwell forever.” I Kings 8:29. Understandably, then, Israel treated the temple with great awe and reverence. The prophet Jeremiah was put into the stocks over night and beaten for suggesting that God might allow the temple to be destroyed. One of the charges against Jesus at his trial was a claim that he had threatened the temple with destruction. An attack on the temple was viewed as an attack on Israel’s God.
Yet Solomon also uttered these cautionary words: “But will God indeed dwell on the earth? Behold, heaven and the highest heaven cannot contain thee; how much less this house which I have built!” I Kings 8:27. God in God’s love for Israel chooses to dwell in the temple she has made. But God will not be confined there. Neither the temple nor its elaborate worship can be used to manipulate God. Nor are maintenance of a building and adherence to ritual substitutes for faithfulness to the commandment of love for God above all else and for one’s neighbor as one’s self. The temple is God’s gift to Israel, not Israel’s handle on God. What God gives, God can and will take away when it becomes a substitute for faithfulness and obedience.
As I have said many times before, it seems to me that we are facing a time of transition for the church. The demographics indicate that we protestants on the East Coast will soon be a much smaller, much poorer church in terms of numbers and dollars. For many of us who have become accustomed to doing church in a particular way, that is about as threatening as the destruction of the temple for Jesus’ contemporaries. I think that for many folks, a church without real estate holdings and sanctuaries, a church without a national office and a host of agencies, service organizations and professional leaders, a church without a nationwide network of bishops, seminaries and professional clergy is simply not church. We think we need all of this to be church, but that surely is not what God needs and may not even be what God desires. Perhaps Jesus is telling us that the edifice we call the ELCA will be reduced to rubble so that not one stone of it will be left upon another.
OK. Before you jump all over me, let me confess that I do not know this to be the case. Perhaps God plans to renew protestant churches in the United States. Perhaps we will see people flowing back through our doors and the ELCA as we know it will experience a robust institutional future. God does not consult with me on these matters. Consequently, I did not preface any of this with “Thus saith the Lord.” But here is what I do know: It takes only a couple people, the Bible, some water and a little bread with wine to make a church. That is all. Of course, it is preferable to have a roof over your head when you meet. Seminaries producing learned preachers and teachers are great to have. Leadership and accountability for congregations is important, too. Large scale ministries addressing hunger, injustice and environmental concerns are swell, if you can support them. I do not suggest for one moment that churches should impoverish themselves. All the extras I have mentioned are gifts to be received with thanksgiving. But for all the wonderful things they accomplish, they are extras. We can lose them all and still be the church. The greatest danger for us lies in our believing that the extras are essential. When that happens, we cease to be the church and become simply a social service agency at best and a panicked dying corporation at worst. Of course, there is nothing wrong with being a social service agency and corporations are not inherently evil. But either or both together is still far, far less than the embodiment of God’s reign to which Jesus calls us.
The destruction of the temple turned out to be good news. The church was forced to rethink its mission and articulate in new ways its faith in Jesus’ coming in glory. A new and vibrant Judaism rooted in synagogue worship and the internalization of Torah emerged following Rome’s invasion of Jerusalem. What seemed then to be the death throes of an ancient hope for salvation turned out to be the birth pangs of a new age. So I believe this passage from the Gospel of Mark is a message of hope for believers in every age. In the midst of “wars and rumors of wars,” earthquakes, famines and hurricanes, and the end of a lot of what we know and love, God is doing a new thing.
TWENTY-FOURTH SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST
PRAYER OF THE DAY: O God, you show forth your almighty power chiefly by reaching out to us in mercy. Grant us the fullness of your grace, strengthen our trust in your promises, and bring all the world to share in the treasures that come through your Son, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.
The psalm for this coming Sunday makes unmistakably clear God’s preferential love for the widow, the orphan, the alien, the oppressed and the hungry. Our lesson from the Hebrew Scriptures focuses on the heroic faith of a single mom struggling to keep herself and her son alive during a famine. In the gospel lesson, Jesus raises up the fate of a widow whose last means of support is taken for maintenance of the Temple in Jerusalem. I have heard criticisms of the lectionary from time to time by people who insist that the Sunday readings were selectively chosen to support a “liberal social agenda.” Anyone who follows my posts can attest that I have often questioned the wisdom of the selection process employed by the lectionary makers. But in all fairness to them, I think they would have been hard pressed to give equal time for passages that encourage individual achievement, self-reliance and libertarian independence. The lectionary makers would have had a difficult time finding texts supporting the right of the wealthy to accumulate and retain for themselves more wealth. More difficult still would be the task of locating passages supporting imprisonment and deportation of aliens, legal or otherwise. Those actions and the ideologies justifying them find support neither in texts from the Hebrew Scriptures nor in those of the New Testament. So if there is a political agenda here, it is God’s. Don’t blame the lectionary.
As I have often said, the United States is not God’s chosen people. The Bible is not addressed to America. Its voice is directed to Israel and the Church. For that reason, it is a mistake to apply biblical norms to the social and political workings of the United States as though the Bible were a book produced for general consumption and its teachings were applicable to everyone. The Bible is normative for disciples of Jesus and for the people of Israel. Apart from these communities formed and shaped by it, the Bible is nothing more than an anthology of ancient literature of no more contemporary relevance than the Egyptian Book of the Dead.
Nonetheless, the Church lives in America. We drive on American roads, rely on American governments to collect our garbage, protect us from fire, regulate commerce and provide us a measure of social security. We cannot be indifferent to all that transpires in the larger society. Even as exiles who “have no lasting city” (Hebrews 13:14), we find our welfare in the welfare of our city of exile. Jeremiah 29:7. What, then, do we as Church have to contribute to the welfare of the United States?
In the past, I have used the term “counter-cultural” community as a useful synonym for the church’s faithful corporate witness. I am less than enamored with that term now, however. In addition to having become too “trendy,” the term can be construed to mean a community that derives its identity merely from being against the dominant culture. That is not an apt description of the life of the Church in society. In the first place, the dominant culture we call American is not rotten to the core. There is much that is admirable, much that is worth preserving and much with which the church can identify. Moreover, sometimes developments in the surrounding culture alert the church to its own blind spots, prejudices and sinfulness. The culture is not always wrong and the Church is not always right.
More significantly, however, I am uncomfortable with the term counter-culture because the church is not principally about protesting evil and injustice in the world. It is about embodying the mind of Christ and living out that consciousness. To be sure, faithful discipleship will at times bring the Church into conflict with ideologies and practices of the dominant culture. Indeed, the cultural environment might become so hostile to the reign of God that disciples will need to withdraw into their own enclave to live faithfully under that reign. Yet even such withdrawal should constitute a positive witness to the Lord we confess rather than mere revulsion at the condition of society.
The texts for this Sunday challenge us to recognize God’s agenda for creation in Jesus’ life given faithfully and freely to the implementation of that agenda and God’s resurrection of Jesus from death guaranteeing God’s eternal commitment to making that agenda a reality so that God’s will is “done on earth as in heaven.” We are challenged to practice hospitality to aliens, show mercy to those living on the margins of society and seek justice for those who have neither voice nor vote. That brings us into direct conflict with advocates of mass deportation and militarized borders. It puts us at odds with all who feel that nutrition, health care and housing for the poor in our midst is too expensive. Discipleship puts us on a collision course with an economy that elevates profit over people. That’s neither liberal nor conservative, Democratic or Republican. It’s Moses. It’s the prophets. It’s Jesus. Deal with it.
This story is from the beginning of the Elijah/Elisha tales. These tales come into the Bible from the Northern Kingdom of Israel that broke away from the Davidic Monarchy after the death of David’s son, Solomon. This Northern Kingdom of Israel was destroyed by the Assyrian Empire in 722 B.C.E. The stories of Elijah and Elisha were likely brought to the Southern Kingdom of Judah shortly after that time by refugees from the north. The stories were then incorporated into the traditions of Judah, which continued to exist under the Davidic monarchy until its conquest by Babylon in 587 B.C.E. During and following the Babylonian captivity the Elijah and Elisha stories were woven into the narrative fabric of Israel’s life in the land of Canaan.
As one commentator points out, “[r]ecent studies…have sought parallels between twentieth and twenty-first century communal traumas and the biblical events of 722 and 587. The past century has witnessed not only numerous cases of devastating war and population displacement but also a good deal of research into these phenomenon, using the tools of the social sciences. If we proceed with appropriate caution, we may assert that there are indeed insights to be gained into our texts. Clearly, the destruction of the Northern and Southern Kingdoms and the Babylonian Exile were central events in the life of Israel. In a pivotal article Wright (2009) argues that the Bible as a whole and its notion of a People of Israel owe themselves directly to catastrophic defeats (722 and 587) that resulted in Israel and Judah’s loss of territorial sovereignty. More recently, Carr (2010) has called the Hebrew Bible ‘a Bible for exiles.’ This is manifested in many biblical texts-not only portions of the Early Prophets, but also Lamentations, selected Psalms, passages from the prophets, and possibly Job-that express reactions akin to post-traumatic stress disorder. They reflect the need to constantly relive the trauma, as it were; they focus on blaming the Israelite community for its fate; and they at times give rise to feelings of intense nationalism, amid a glorification of the distant past. The Bible thus represents an Israel, or at least an influential group of Israelites responsible for its composition, trying to come to terms with catastrophe.” Fox, Everett, The Early Prophets, The Schocken Bible: Vol. 2 (c. 2014 by Everett Fox, pub. by Schocken Books) pp. 554-555; citations to Wright, Jacob, “The Commemoration of Defeat and the Formation of a Nation in the Hebrew Bible,” Prooftexts 29. (2009 Gen’l); Carr, David M., An Introduction to the Old Testament: Sacred Texts and Imperial Contexts for the Hebrew Bible, (c. 2010 by Wiley Blackwell).
While there is obviously danger in over psychologizing the Bible, I agree that the Hebrew Scriptures reached their final form during the nadir of Israel’s existence while she lived as a conquered and exiled people in a land not her own. Israel, or more properly Judah, was coming to grips with the loss of everything that had made her a nation: the land promised to the patriarchs and matriarchs; the temple in Jerusalem; and the line of David that was supposed to last forever. If national prominence, wealth and military power measure the strength of a deity, Israel’s God had surely been bested by the Babylonian pantheon. How could the God of a ruined and enslaved people be God in deed? How could Israel be the people of God while living in servitude? If Israel were not to abandon her faith altogether, she would need to rethink who her God truly is and what it means to be the people of such a God.
We are citizens of what is now the wealthiest and most powerful empire in the world. Most of us have been inducted into a Christianity that has dominated Western culture for over a millennium. For this reason, I believe we find it hard to hear the genuine voice of these scriptures. Moreover, that voice has undergone some horrible distortions from having been spoken under the acoustical conditions of wealth and prosperity. For centuries the Bible has been employed as justification for white privilege and western domination of the globe. It has been enlisted to support genocidal wars, heartless political ideologies and ruthless acts of terror. Today, it is being cited in support of racial hate, violence against gays and lesbians and the right to carry concealed weapons.
The scriptures speak from a context that is entirely alien to most of us. The biblical authors and editors have, for the most part, far more in common with the millions of refugees eking out their existences in containment camps with no nation to call home than with middle class American churchgoers who have been raised to believe that theirs is the nation “under God.” While this does not mean that we cannot rightly understand the scriptures, it does mean that we must learn to read them through different lenses and view them from perspectives other than those of power and privilege. The Bible is the book of the poor, the disenfranchised and the oppressed. That isn’t simply a political statement (though it surly has political import). It is a fact.
On its face, Sunday’s lesson is a touching story about kindness shared between a couple of strangers living on the margins. Some context is helpful here to give the story its full narrative punch. Elijah is a fugitive on the run. King Ahab is out to kill him for his fearless words of judgment against the king’s idolatry and the ruthless oppression of his administration. The woman in is a native of Phoenicia, a gentile outside the scope of Israel’s covenant and not a worshiper of Israel’s God. She is also a single mom living in the depths of poverty in the midst of a famine. As with hurricanes and other natural disasters, famine hits hardest the weak and the vulnerable. A widow with a small child living in a society with no “safety net” is about as weak and vulnerable as weakness and vulnerability get. When Elijah encounters this woman, she is gathering sticks to make a fire and cook a small biscuit from the last bit of wheat and oil she has. She will then split this small morsel with her little boy. After that, they will both starve.
Elijah asks her to bake him a biscuit also from her meager store. That is a mighty big ask. In the first place, this man is a stranger, a foreigner and a criminal. Why help him? What does she owe him? Helping him might get her in trouble with the authorities. We know that King Ahab has enlisted the help of all the neighboring kingdoms in tracking down Elijah. I Kings 18:7-10. Why would a woman with enough troubles of her own want to get involved with an illegal alien that has a bounty on his head? Secondly, there simply isn’t enough. What little this woman has cannot even sustain her and her son for long. Charity begins at home, after all. Could anyone blame her for denying aid to a perfect stranger in order to save the life of her own son?
The story, however, takes a turn that we would not expect. This is no chance meeting. We learn that God sent this prophet Elijah to this particular widow. That changes everything. God is behind all of this. The prophet therefore can promise the widow that her little jar of wheat meal and her flask of oil will see all three of them through the famine. The woman believes Elijah and they are, in fact, sustained. If the widow in this story had been practical and pragmatic, she would have sent Elijah away empty handed and kept for herself and her son the little she had left. Ultimately, she probably would have starved. Instead, she had compassion on Elijah and trusted the promise of his God who was surely unknown to her. In so doing, she discovered what the people of God have had to learn again and again: Our God is a God of generosity and abundance.
So here is the take away: The people of God do not believe in “chance,” We should not be caught uttering nonsense like, “Well what are the chances of our meeting here?” or “I guess we just got lucky.” At least we should not be using these terms when it comes to the people we encounter in our daily lives and the opportunities God gives us to show them compassion and hospitality. We believe that our God is behind every encounter we have with another person. We believe that every encounter is another opportunity to give or to receive God’s tender loving care. Because God stands behind every human encounter, it follows that God is able and willing to provide us with all we need to make such an encounter a saving, redemptive, life-giving event. Because God is generous, we can afford to be generous-always. To put it plainly, there is always enough. To believe less than that is to doubt the existence of the God we claim to worship.
Such bold faith stands in stark contrast to the craven fear of privation pervading our culture. Despite all the talk in Washington these days of belt tightening, deficits and fiscal cliffs and notwithstanding the irrational and racially motivated hatred of immigrants “stealing our country” whipped into a white hot frenzy by some presidential hopefuls, there is no shortage of anything anyone in the world needs to live well. However little we may think we have, when we place it at the service of our God it is always more than enough for ourselves and our neighbors. That is the divine economics of the loaves and the fishes. It is the economy of the people of God.
This hymn of praise is among a group of psalms called “Hallelujah Psalms” (Psalms 146-150) because they begin and end with the phrase: “O Praise the Lord!” commonly translated “hallelujah.” The fact that this hymn speaks of royalty and the reign of justice solely in terms of God’s sovereignty with nary a mention of the Davidic monarchy suggests to me that it was composed after the Babylonian conquest of Judah when the people had no king or prince of their own. Such kings and princes as there may have been were no friends to this conquered people living in a land not their own. This would explain why the psalmist urges people not to put their “trust in princes.” Vs. 3. Skepticism about human rulers may also reflect Israel’s disappointment in her past rulers whose selfish, shortsighted and destructive actions contributed to the loss of her land and her independence as a people. In either case, the psalmist would have us know that God is the only king worthy of human trust and confidence. God alone has the interests of the widows, the fatherless and the resident aliens at heart. Vss. 7-10. God is able to exercise power without being corrupted by it. These factors and linguistic considerations support an exilic or postexilic date for this psalm. See Rogerson, J.W. and McKay, J.W., Psalms 101-150, The Cambridge Bible Commentary (c. 1977 by Cambridge University Press) p. 178.
I have always loved the phrase from the second verse translated by the old RSV as “Praise the Lord, O my soul.” Vs. 1. The Hebrew notion of “soul” or “nephesh” is nothing like the contemporary understanding of the soul as an immortal part of the human person that somehow survives death and goes on living somewhere in a disembodied state. In Hebrew thinking, the soul is the life force, the self, the innermost person. This innermost person must be urged, encouraged, prodded to praise the Lord. That is very much the way it is with me. I do not always feel like praying when I first wake up. In fact, more often than not I must discipline myself to make time for prayer. It is not until I am well into praying that I experience the joy that prayer brings. Like the psalmist, I need to encourage myself: “Come on, soul! Get with it! Wake up and look around at all there is for which you ought to be thankful!”
I must also say that I love these psalms of praise above all others. I am convinced that they are transformative. If we let them shape our hearts and minds, they make of us the joyful people God desires for us to be. Happy people are thankful people; people who recognize that all they have received is a gift; people who receive thankfully their daily bread without turning a jealous eye to see what is on everyone else’s plate. They are people who recognize, even in their failures and defeats, the presence of the one who makes each day new and finds new directions where everyone else can see only a dead end. This psalm was in all probability written by one who knew well the realities of oppression, poverty and human cruelty. But these things do not reign in his/her heart. God reigns throughout all generations. To God belongs all praise and trust.
As I have pointed out in previous posts, I believe that the author of Hebrews is struggling with the trauma to early believers resulting from the destruction of the Temple in 70 C.E. The loss of this structure and the liturgical institutions that gave meaning and substance to the faith of Israel struck a demoralizing blow to all of Judaism, including those Jews who were disciples of Jesus. The argument spelled out here is that the Temple and its sacrificial liturgy were merely “a shadow of the good things to come.” Heb. 10:1. They could not effect true reconciliation with God. The Temple was only a symbol of the dwelling place of God and its priests were merely human representatives whose sacrifices could do no more than point to the perfect sacrifice required to establish communion with God. By contrast, Jesus’ faithful life, obedient death and resurrection by the power of God establish communion with God, the reality to which the Temple and its priesthood could only point in anticipation.
This message is difficult for us to get our heads around because we are so far removed from the trauma it is intended to address. Yet, as I have said previously, there are perhaps some parallels in our own experience. We preach, teach and confess that the church is the body of believers in Jesus. Yet we cannot help getting attached to the building in which we worship. The sanctuary is a place where treasured memories coalesce. It is the place where we bring our children for holy baptism. It is the place where we witness their confirmation. It might also be the place where we spoke our marriage vows to our spouses and where we bid our last farewells to dear ones gone to join the church triumphant. When a sanctuary filled with so much meaning and so many memories is taken from us-whether through its destruction, the disbanding of the congregation or through renovations that altar the look and feel of the sanctuary-the result can be a deep sense of loss. The author of Hebrews reminds us that the building, however deeply we may be attached to it, is only a symbol or reflection of the reality which is Christ. As John points out in his gospel, worship of God is not tied down to any location or physical structure. John 4:21-25. The same can be said of particular liturgies, hymns or styles of worship to which we have a tendency to become attached. We can afford to lose them, provided we keep our focus on the person of Jesus to which they point us. As a book written to a church traumatized by loss and change, Hebrews speaks a timely and much needed word of hope and encouragement.
While the scriptures themselves are the inspired word of God, the same cannot be said of the chapter and verse designations that come with all of our Bibles. The chapter divisions commonly used today were developed by Stephen Langton, an Archbishop of Canterbury in about 1227 C.E. While these divisions make citation of Biblical texts easier, they can also blind us to connections between related portions of scripture that are arbitrarily broken by Langton’s system. I believe this Sunday’s text is a victim of this distortion. I should also say before going any further that I owe this insight to Professor Gerald O. West, a remarkable young theologian who teaches at the University of Theology at Kwazulu-Natal in South Africa. Professor West was a speaker at the Trinity Institute National Theological Conference which I attended in January of 2011. He is the one that alerted me to the context of this story of the “Widow’s Mite” which I simply failed to see for all of my life because I have always stopped reading this story at the end of Mark chapter 12. Now I invite you to read this story in its full context:
“As he taught, he said, ‘Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and to be greeted with respect in the market-places, and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets! They devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.’
“He sat down opposite the treasury, and watched the crowd putting money into the treasury. Many rich people put in large sums. A poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which are worth a penny. Then he called his disciples and said to them, ‘Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.’ As he came out of the temple, one of his disciples said to him, ‘Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!’ Then Jesus asked him, ‘Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.’”
We have always used this text as a stewardship lesson. We urge people to be more like the poor widow who gave to the point of impoverishing herself than like the rich people contributing large sums of money representing only the excess of their great wealth. But that might not be the point at all. First of all, notice that Jesus does not commend the woman or her offering. He merely states the obvious. Her little coins are far dearer to her than the excess of the rich. For the rich, their offerings would at most affect the quality of the hotel they choose to stay in while vacationing at Monaco. For this woman, her offering represents her last chance for survival. Does it make sense that Jesus would commend this woman for committing suicide? When Jesus challenged the rich young man to sell everything and follow him, he instructed him to give his money not to the Temple and its commercial enterprises (which Jesus soundly condemned), but to the poor. Moreover, Jesus did not leave the young man without any options other than starvation. He invited the young man to follow him and find his security not in wealth but in the community of faith through which all disciples are blessed. This woman is given no such summons and has no such option.
Perhaps we need to read the story of the widow in connection both with what precedes and what follows. Just prior to this incident, Jesus warns his disciples to beware of the scribes who “devour widow’s houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers.” Vs. 40. The widow in our lesson appears to be “Exhibit A” for this very point. She has put into the Temple treasury all that she had to live on. Vs. 44. We have always assumed that this was a voluntary donation and thus an expression of generosity and faith in God. But that isn’t exactly what the text says. The gospel tells us only that Jesus was watching “the multitude putting money into the treasury.” Vs. 41. How do we know that they were doing so voluntarily? Could this have been a sort of tax? We know that there were such taxes imposed for the support of the temple from other biblical sources (See, e.g., Matthew 17:24-27). Taxes, as we all know, fall harder upon the poor and lower classes than on the rich. Again, our lesson is a case in point. If I am right about this, then the first two verses from chapter 13 which are not a part of our lesson, make perfect sense. Jesus leaves the Temple with his disciples who have presumably heard his teaching in Chapter 12. As usual, they are clueless. All they can do is gawk at the Temple like a band of tourists coming to the big city for the first time and yammer about how marvelous it is. But Jesus has been telling them from the time of his arrival in Jerusalem that the Temple and the corrupt and exploitive practices it represents are not marvelous in God’s eyes. Instead of glorifying the God who is the guardian of widows and orphans, the Temple and its priesthood, aided by their Roman overlords, are impoverishing and exploiting widows. For this reason, the Temple is doomed. Not one stone of it will remain upon another when God is through with it.
I have to confess that I have been unable to find another single commentator on the Gospel of Mark that agrees with this reading or even considers it. (I have consulted four) But given the context, I must say that I find this interpretation very compelling. How, then, does this text so construed speak to us? I don’t think the church in the United States can fairly be accused of impoverishing anyone. Unlike the Temple authorities in Jesus’ day, we don’t have the power to impose taxes. We ask for financial commitments, but these are voluntary and they are not legally enforceable. Still and all, there is often a tendency in the church to view people from the standpoint of consumers. Very often dialogue about mission degenerates into tiresome discussions in which the dominant question is “How can we get more members?” The trouble here is that we begin to view people not as persons to be served and cared for, but as raw meat to fill our committees and help finance our operations. Naturally, people flee from organizations seeking to exploit them and so we fail both in our purpose as a church and in our objective of bringing on board new members.
The lesson also forces us to face the troublesome fact of economic inequality within the church. If we take seriously what Jesus teaches us about the proper use of wealth and if we take to heart Paul’s understanding of the Church as the Body of Christ whose health depends on the wellbeing of all its members, we must ask ourselves how it is possible that we have disciples of Jesus here in the United States and around the world that lack the basic necessities of living. If we are called to be an outpost for the reign of God in the world, then we ought not to import into the church the same disparities and lack of concern for our neighbor that is distressingly common in our culture today.