Archive for December, 2015

Sunday, January 3rd

THE EPIPHANY OF OUR LORD 

Isaiah 60:1-6
Psalm 72:1-7, 10-14
Ephesians 3:1-12
Matthew 2:1-12

PRAYER OF THE DAY: O God, on this day you revealed your Son to the nations by the leading of a star. Lead us now by faith to know your presence in our lives, and bring us at last to the full vision of your glory, through your Son, Jesus Christ or Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

At Trinity we celebrate Epiphany on the nearest Sunday to January 6th. We do that because this pastor believes the feast day is a critical piece of the gospel narrative too important to consign to a weekday service that few are likely to attend. I know that, in the view of some of my learned colleagues, I am violating liturgical protocol here. So sue me. I am going to talk about and preach from the Epiphany texts. If your congregation will be celebrating the Second Sunday after Christmas instead, I invite you to read the fine commentaries on workingpreacher.org., a site maintained by Luther Seminary in Saint Paul, MN.

So who were the magi that came to visit the Christ child? Where did they come from? What was the mysterious star that led them to seek out the one born “king of the Jews”? How did they know about the Jews? Why should they care about the Jews and their messianic hopes? Biblical scholars have struggled with these questions for centuries. Some of the possibilities are laid out in my discussion of the gospel lesson below. Modern scholars often dismiss the magi’s visit to the Christ child as nothing more than a literary device employed by Matthew the evangelist in telling his version of the gospel narrative. This latter historical-critical construct does much to relieve the cognitive dissonance created as Matthew’s 1st Century witness assaults our 21st Century rationalist/relativist sensibilities. If the magi were not “real,” then we can summarily dismiss all speculation about them as irrelevant to the “historical core” we seek. As those of you who follow me know, I believe neither in “Jesus of history” nor in the 19th Century rationalist understanding of “reality” we so uncritically accept in the 21st. I believe with all my heart that before we can hear the scriptural witness as God’s word, we need to stop judging the Bible by our standards of truth and allow the scriptures to judge us under its own truth claims.

Maybe the scriptures leave so much unexplained precisely so that we will wonder about the gaps. Perhaps the Bible was written to invite speculation, to ignite imagination and stimulate creative embellishment. If that is so, we should not be overly critical of depictions of the magi as the “Three Kings” or worry overly much about the fact that their arrival by camel was highly unlikely in the 1st Century (to say nothing of the fact that New Testament says nothing about how many magi there were, does not identify them as kings or tell us anything about their mode of transportation). We should not cringe seeing the magi in the crèche approaching the manger with their gifts, even though we know that this constitutes a conflation of Matthew’s narrative with that of Luke’s. Furthermore, it is clearly not inappropriate for us to wonder about how the magi’s encounter with Jesus may have transformed them.

At the end of the day, we are compelled to recognize that we, like the magi, are a journey toward the Christ child, whether we acknowledge it or not. It is in Christ Jesus, Paul tells us, that “all things are held together.” The day will come, says Paul, when every knee will bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord to the glory of God the Father (though he doesn’t tell us that every tongue will make that confession gladly). It should not surprise us, then, that seekers after truth should ultimately arrive at the manger. It is not that our human intelligence and reason are capable of ascertaining the truth about God. Rather, the Truth that is God is capable of drawing all people to Himself, no matter what there starting point might be.

Though Matthew does not tell us what happened to the magi after they returned home to their own country, we cannot help but believe that their lives were set on a brand new trajectory. That is always what happens after an encounter with Jesus. Here is T.S. Eliot’s imaginative sequel to the visit of the magi to the Christ Child.

Journey of the Magi

‘A cold coming we had of it,
Just the worst time of the year
For a journey, and such a long journey;
The ways deep and the weather sharp,
The very dead of wither.’
And the camels galled, sore-footed, refractory,
Lying down in the melting snow.
There were times we regretted
The summer palaces on slopes, the terraces,
And the silken girls bringing sherbet.
The camel men cursing and grumbling
And running away, and wanting their liquor and women,
And the night-fires going out, and the lack of shelters,
And the cities hostile and the towns unfriendly
And the villages dirty and charging high prices;
A hard time we had of it.
At the end we preferred to travel all night,
Sleeping in snatchers,
With the voices singing in our ears, saying
That this was all folly.
 
At dawn we came down to a temperate valley,
Wet, below the snow line, smelling of vegetation,
With a running stream and a water-mill beating the darkness.
And three trees on the low sky.
And an old white horse galloped away in the meadow.
Then we came to a tavern with vine-leaves over the lintel,
Six hands at an open door dicing for pieces of silver,
And feet kicking the empty wine-skins.
But there was no information, and so we continued
And arrived at evening, not a moment too soon
Finding the place, it was (you may say) satisfactory.
 
All this was a long time ago, I remember,
And would do it again, but set down
This set down
This: were we led all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly,
We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.
We returned to our places, three Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.

Source, T.S. Eliot, Collected Poems 1909-1962, (c. 1970 by Esme Valerie Eliot, pub. by Harcourt, Brace & World, Inc.) p. 99. T.S. Eliot was a British, American-born essayist, publisher, playwright, literary and social critic. He was easily one of the giants of poetry for the 20th Century. In 1927 Eliot converted from Unitarianism to Anglicanism, identifying himself as an “Anglo-Catholic.” He died in January of 1965. You can read more about T.S. Eliot, his poetry and other literary works at the Poetry Foundation Website.

Isaiah 60:1-6

As I have pointed out before, the book of the prophet Isaiah is regarded by most Hebrew Scripture scholars to be the work of three different prophets. Chapters 1-39 are attributed in the main to Isaiah the prophet who lived and prophesied in the 8th Century during the reigns of Judean kings Jotham, Ahaz and Hezekiah. Chapters 40-55 are attributed to a prophet who preached toward the end of the Babylonian exile of the Jews around 537 B.C.E., declaring to them God’s forgiveness and God’s promise to lead them back from exile to their homeland in Palestine. Chapters 56-66 are the words of a prophet addressing the Jews who in fact returned to Palestine and were struggling to rebuild their community under difficult circumstances. The prophet’s utterances are addressed to Jews living in their Palestinian homeland, but it is clear that the temple of Jerusalem has not yet been rebuilt. Thus, we can confidently date the work of this third prophet as taking place between the return from exile in  537 B.C.E. and the dedication of the reconstructed temple in 515 B.C.E.

Chapters 60-62 are believed to contain the nucleus of the message attributed to “Third Isaiah.” Westermann, Claus, Isaiah 40-66, The Old Testament Library (c. 1969 by SCM Press, Ltd.) p. 352. They contain a message of salvation to the disillusioned Jews struggling to rebuild some semblance of their community under difficult and dangerous conditions. The land to which the exiles returned was inhabited by peoples who considered it their own, principally, the Samaritans. Political instability in the Persian Empire created a tense and uncertain atmosphere under which the Jews were reluctant to undertake any project that might ignite hostility with their neighbors or the empire. Consequently, the work of rebuilding the temple in Jerusalem begun soon after the return from exile was abandoned. The temple would not be rebuilt until the arrival of the scribe and prophet Ezra.

Our lesson today constitutes the opening line of a jubilant announcement of salvation to Israel. Israel’s “light” has come. Vs. 1. The glory of the Lord will rise upon Israel. While “darkness shall cover the earth and thick darkness upon the peoples,” the Lord will “rise upon” Israel and God’s glory will be upon her. Vs. 2. The nations that now oppress Israel will be conquered and come to serve Israel, but this conquest will not be accomplished through violence. Rather, the nations will be drawn out of their darkness into and the Light of God shining forth from the restored Zion. Vs. 3. The kings of the earth will be won over to the praise of Israel’s God and contribute to the rebuilding of Jerusalem. Vss. 4-7.

While this prediction might sound a little far-fetched, it is thoroughly grounded in history. According to the book of Ezra, Cyrus the Emperor of Persia both supported and helped to financed the rebuilding of the temple. This work, which was abandoned after the death of Cyrus, might never have resumed without the support of the Persian emperor Darius whose reign began in 522 B.C.E. The prophet might well have seen in this patronage the beginning of a great turning of the nations to Israel’s God.

I cannot read these words without recognizing that, so far from becoming a center for reconciliation between peoples, Jerusalem has been and continues to be a flashpoint for conflicts having global ramifications. It is easy to spiritualize the text and get around the messy historical reality by claiming that the prophecy now refers to the “New Jerusalem” where all will be made new. While there is surely some validity to this application, I don’t believe we can divorce these words from the brick and mortar Jerusalem that stands in the heart of Palestine today. Are we not still called upon to “pray for the peace of Jerusalem”?  Psalm 122:6.

I am not a fan of what passes for interfaith dialogue these days, much of which tends to degenerate into New Age mush.  But I am convinced that Christians share with Jews and Muslims an interest in the well being of Jerusalem. For Christians, it is the place where Jesus made his final stand of unconditional faithfulness to God and love for us. For Jews, Jerusalem is the city where God caused his name to dwell. For Muslims, Jerusalem is the site of Muhammad’s miraculous ascension into heaven. All three faiths have generated prayers for the peace and well being of this holy city. I believe that dialogue among Christians, Jews and Muslims focusing on how together we can bring peace to Jerusalem might well lead us to a better understanding of each other’s faith traditions and take us a long way toward healing some old and deep-seated conflicts. This is particularly so if such dialogue is followed up with concrete action on the part of our respective faith communities to make the peace of Jerusalem a reality

Psalm 72:1-7, 10-14

This psalm might have been used in coronation ceremonies for the anointing of a Judean king in the line of David or for the annual commemoration of such an occasion. Anderson, Bernhard W., Out of the Depths: the Psalms Speak for Us Today, (c. 1983 by Bernhard W. Anderson, pub. by Westminster Press) pp. 188-189. Stylistically, it resembles the coronation liturgies typically used for the ascension of kings in the surrounding Canaanite cultures of the Near East. With respect to content, the psalm is strikingly different from such rites. What is noteworthy here is that the king does not rule for his own sake. He must exercise his power only in the cause of “justice and righteousness.” Vs. 2. He is commissioned to “defend the cause of the poor of the people, give deliverance to the needy, and crush the oppressor.” Vs. 4.

This notion would have seemed remarkable to typical Near Eastern monarchs who considered themselves “gods” and understood their role as one of upholding the oppressive social hierarchy. They would have had a difficult time understanding why David found it necessary to cover up his act of adultery with Bathsheba. He was king, after all. Why not just take the woman? Who has standing to argue with a god? David knew, however, that he was no god and that he was not above the law. That is why he went to such great (and ultimately unsuccessful lengths) to cover up his crimes. As pointed out by Old Testament scholar, Artur Weiser, “…behind the reign of the earthly king is God’s rule as King; the righteousness of the king is a function and the mirror-image of the righteousness of God which he has promised to his people in their need for protection (‘thy needy’ in v.2) and to those individual members who depend on his assistance, and which does not allow the weak to become the prey of the mighty.” The Psalms: A Commentary, Artur Weiser, (S.C.M. Press, Ltd., c. 1962) p. 503.

As I noted in last week’s post, Israel’s view of monarchy was ambivalent. Some of the literary sources making up the Books of I and II Samuel affirm the Davidic monarchy as a saving act of God on a par with the Exodus. But other sources express deep skepticism and outright hostility to the notion that any human ruler should assume the role of “king” which rightfully belongs to God alone. The 8th and 7th Century prophets’ criticize the Judean and Israelite monarchies, chide the kings for their unfaithfulness to the covenant of Sinai and condemn their tolerance of idolatry and their frequent abuses of power. All of this suggests that the weight of the crown is more than any human being can bear. This, by the way, is a favorite theme of William Shakespeare. Most of his kings in his plays, even the good ones, are eventually undone by their all too human character flaws. Perhaps this very insight is what led the prophets to yearn for God to take matters in hand and “cause a righteous Branch to spring up for David.” Only a person thoroughly imbued with God’s Spirit can be expected to “execute justice and righteousness in the land.” Jeremiah 33:15.

Once again, to say, as disciples of Jesus do, that Israel’s messianic hope is fulfilled in Jesus raises more questions than it answers. The juxtaposition of Jesus, the crucified one, with the title of “king” can only place in graphic relief the radical difference between God’s exercise of sovereignty and how sovereignty, authority and power typically are exercised among the nations of the world. If Jesus is King, if he really is God’s messiah, then we must rethink everything we think we know about power, authority and might. Indeed, we need to rethink everything we think we know about God and the way God operates and exercises power.

Ephesians 3:1-12

For some background on Ephesians, see my post of  July 15, 2012. See also the Summary Article by Mary Hinkle Shore, Associate Professor of New Testament at Luther Seminary, Saint Paul, MN.

This is an incredible passage that ascribes a tremendous amount of importance to the church. It is “through the church [that] the manifold wisdom of God [is] now made known to the principalities and powers in the heavenly places.” Vs. 10.  If that is true, then the single most important thing the church can do for the world is simply to be the church. Or, to borrow the phrase of Jonathan R. Wilson, Professor of Theology at Carey Theological College, “Just getting together is accomplishing something.”

For years I have attended clergy meetings where the first question asked by everyone I meet is, “So what is your church doing?” or “What’s happening at Trinity”  I always feel pressured to start enumerating all that we are doing (and thankfully, I always have a formidable list). Yet I sometimes think that our focus on “doing” and our emphasis on “programming” and our seeming lust for “measurable results” are all dangerously misguided. After all, there isn’t much that we do that someone else cannot do as well or better. But if we are not the community that mirrors God’s reign on earth, who else will be? If we are not communities in which people are shaped into the image of Christ through the practices of worship, prayer, confession, forgiveness, compassion and hospitality, what other institution will pick up the slack?  I submit that from the standpoint of the witness from Ephesians, there is nothing more important we can do than gather for prayer, praise and the breaking of bread together. If everything else we do does not flow from that, we are just spinning our wheels.

I believe that the church is under valued by its members. So far from being a Body from which the members draw their life and derive their purpose, the church has become for us a voluntary organization designed to serve the needs of society. For too long, we have fretted over the church’s loss of status and influence, its lack of “relevance,” its increasing marginalization-as though this were something altogether foreign to discipleship! The fact that people are finally discovering that one can be a good American citizen and a moral person without being attached to the church is a good thing. It was never the church’s job to make good citizens, uphold public morality or fix societies problems. We have been called to the work of forging disciples in the furnace of a community seeking ever to follow Jesus above all others. So we are compelled to ask, what does a disciple-making community look like?

Matthew 2:1-12

The image of the three kings has become enshrined in Christian art and hymnody-even though the three visitors to the infant Jesus were not kings and we have no idea how many of them there were. We also have no idea where they came from. Matthew tells us only that they “came from the East,” In theory, that could be anywhere west of Palestine. The term “magoi” which Matthew uses to describe the “wise men,” is an imprecise term referring generally to persons engaged in occult arts. It covers astrologers, fortune tellers, priestly augurers and magicians. The Greek historian, Herodotus describes a priestly cast of “magoi” among the 6th Century Medes that had special power to interpret dreams. This has led some scholars to suggest that the magi in Matthew’s gospel might have been Persians. Brown, Raymond E., The Birth of the Messiah, (c. 1977 by Raymond E. Brown, pub. by Doubleday & Company, Inc.) pp. 168-170.There is little in the way of evidence, however, to support the claim that this was Matthew’s understanding. Whatever their origin, the magi were clearly outside the scope of God’s covenant with Israel and had no claim on Israel’s messiah. It is therefore highly ironic that these outsiders are somehow drawn to seek this new “king of the Jews,” whereas the scribes, the scriptural experts are caught completely off guard and are “troubled” along with Herod and the rest of Jerusalem.

A further irony comes in the question placed to Herod: “Where is he who has been born King of the Jews?” That title belonged to Herod. Though not a Jew, he had received the designation “King of the Jews” from his Roman overlords-a fact that was not lost on his truly Jewish subjects who mostly hated him. One can well imagine the apoplectic rage inspired by the magi as they entered Herod’s throne room and asked, “So where is the real king?”

There has been no end of speculation concerning the origin of the star that caught the attention of the magi. Supernova, comet and even a planetary conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn have all been suggested to explain the astronomical event. Brown, supra at 169-173. As far as I am aware, there is no astrophysical support for any of these explanations and no historical testimony from any source other than the gospel for the appearance of the star leading the magi to Jesus. But perhaps this entire line of inquiry is missing the point. No one, save the magi, appear even to be aware of the star. Neither Herod nor the religious leaders saw it. The star, whatever it was, could well have been such an imperceptible astronomical event that it would have escaped notice by all except those regularly scrutinizing the heavens for such phenomenon. Moreover, the gospels are not historical reports but narratives spun from the fabric of the early church’s preaching. Precise chronology and historical accuracy as we understand it today were not high priorities for the evangelists. Faithful testimony to Jesus was. So the better question would be: how does the star and its draw for the Magi inform our understanding of Jesus and his call to discipleship in Matthew’s gospel?

Matthew has by far the largest number of explicit citations to the Old Testament of all the gospels. He believes emphatically that Jesus is the fulfillment of the hopes and dreams of Israel to which the scriptures bear witness. Yet from the very outset he also wishes to make clear that God’s reign reaches beyond Israel. The magi, though outside God’s covenant with Israel and informed by what Matthew would clearly have regarded as false religion, are nonetheless drawn by God’s grace to worship Israel’s messiah. This brings us full circle to Isaiah and his declaration that the nations of the world now shrouded in darkness will be drawn to the light of God to seek Israel’s covenant wisdom. The story also echoes the lesson from Ephesians which boldly states that, through the church, the mystery of God’s saving work in Jesus is made manifest to the world.

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Sunday, December 27th

FIRST SUNDAY OF CHRISTMAS

1 Samuel 2:18-20, 26
Psalm 148
Colossians 3:12-17
Luke 2:41-52

PRAYER OF THE DAY: Shine into our hearts the light of your wisdom, O God, and open our minds to the knowledge of your word, that in all things we may think and act according to your good will and may live continually in the light of your Son, Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

Nothing scares the socks off us parents quite as much as when we lose track of our kids. It can happen in a flash. One minute they are next to you in a crowded department store pulling on your coat to get your attention. Then your attention is distracted for a split second and they are gone. Terror sucks the air out of your lungs. Your heart starts pounding as you frantically scan the aisles. Most of the time, these episodes end in a profound spasm of relief as the missing child is spotted somewhere nearby. But the posters of missing children on milk cartons, billboards and bus stops remind us that this is not always the case. So I can well understand the panic experienced by Mary and Joseph when they discovered that their child was missing from the caravan of pilgrims returning from Jerusalem. I can also imagine the relief they felt at finding Jesus in the Temple and their conflicting desires both to hug him tight and to slap him silly for putting them through three days of hell.

Mary, we are told, “kept all of these things in her heart.” She is learning, I suspect, that Jesus is not entirely “her” son. That is true for all us parents in large measure. We don’t own our children and we make life exceedingly difficult both for them and for us when we act as though we do. Disciples of Jesus ought to understand this. After all, in baptism we place our children up for adoption by their heavenly Father when they are infants. At that point, we place their little lives into the hands of God. We invoke the outpouring of the Holy Spirit upon them and who knows where the Spirit will take them from there?

But in Mary’s case, this realization is magnified to a higher intensity. Her son has been placed on a trajectory nobody would wish for his or her child. Jesus belongs to the God of Israel. His life will be spent in the service of the outcasts God seems most to love and cherish. His premature death will be no accident, no miscarriage of justice, no preventable tragedy. Jesus’ death on the cross was the inevitable, politically to-be-expected consequence of his life of obedience to God. The cross is what happens when you exercise compassion for the lowly, speak truth to power and return violence with forgiveness. And this, says God by raising Jesus from death, is the life that really is life. It is the life God desires for us.

Jesus does not belong to Mary, but Mary and each of us belong to Jesus. And that means his cross is our cross; his compassion for the poor is our compassion; and his yearning for the reign of God is our longing. Perhaps the church’s love for Mary is grounded in its recognition that she realized from early on the cost of loving Jesus. The miracle of the Incarnation awakens compassion. It infuses into us God’s passionate love for the world.

Such love hurts. Nobody knew that better than Mary. It would be much easier not to love; not to care; not to get involved with the pain going on around us. It would be much easier to give up, throw up our hands at the state of the world and cry out, “what’s the use?” But God loves us too much to allow us to degenerate into loveless, self-centered survivalists. God knows that we were created to love and, until we do, we will always be less than human, less than what we are destined to become. So, like Mary, we are called to the painful, yet strangely joyful practice of love.

Here is a poem about Mary written by Mary Karr.

 The Blessed Mother Complains to the Lord Her God on the Abundance of Brokenness She Receives

Today I heard a rich and hungry boy verbatim quote
all last night’s infomercials — an anorectic son
who bought with Daddy’s Amex black card
the Bowflex machine and Abdomenizer,
plus a steak knife that doth slice
the inner skin of   his starving arms.
Poor broken child of   Eve myself,
to me, the flightless fly,
the listing, blistered, scalded.
I am the rod to their lightning.
Mine is the earhole their stories pierce.
At my altar the blouse is torn open
and the buttons sailed across
the incensed air space of the nave,
that I may witness the mastectomy scars
crisscrossed like barbed wire, like bandoliers.
To me, the mother carries the ash contents
of   the long-ago incinerated girl.
She begs me for comfort since my own son
was worse tortured. Justice,
they wail for — mercy?
Each prostrate body I hold my arms out for
is a cross my son is nailed to.

Published in Poetry Magazine, December 2012. Mary Karr was born in 1955 and raised in Texas. She has written several books of poetry including Abacus, The Devils Tour, Viper Rum and Sinners Welcome. Karr is a convert to Roman Catholicism. I encourage you to read more about Mary Karr and her poetry at the Poetry Foundation website. Today I heard a rich and hungry boy verbatim quote

1 Samuel 2:18-20, 26

A word or two is warranted regarding the Book of Samuel which actually consists of two volumes (I and II Samuel). The book is still widely regarded to be the product of two very different and originally independent pieces of literature or “sources.”

  • Early source: this writer expresses a favorable view of the development of Israel’s monarchy and sees the rise of the house of David as another saving act of God on a par with the Exodus. This piece was probably composed in the period of the united monarchy under David and Solomon before Israel split into the Northern and Southern Kingdoms.
  • Late source: This writer composed his or her work in the later period of the Judean monarchy and was influenced by the prophets’ criticism of the Davidic kings for their idolatry, injustice and oppression of the poor.
  • These two sources were woven together into a single narrative during the Babylonian Exile from 587 B.C.E. to 530 B.C.E. or shortly thereafter.
  • The actual process of composition is actually a lot more complex with evidence of editing as late as the Persian period following the Babylonian Exile.

See Fox, Everett, The Early Prophets, The Schocken Bible, Vol. II (c. 2014 by Everett Fox, pub. by Random House LLC) pp. 271-272.

The tension between these opposing views of monarchy becomes evident later on in the book when Samuel expresses opposition to the very idea of Israel’s having a king like all the other nations, yet takes an active part in anointing both Saul and David.

The particular snippet of scripture making up our lesson for this Sunday is part of a larger story from the late source. Hannah is one of two wives wedded to Elkanah. She is unable to bear children-a particularly cruel fate for women in ancient near eastern culture. In many such societies, a woman’s failure to bear children was grounds for divorce. Though we now know that infertility can as easily be a function impediments to the male reproductive system, in ancient societies it was almost always attributed to the women. To make matters worse, Hannah’s sister wife was fertile, had given Elkanah several children and would not let Hannah forget it. So while the family was on a pilgrimage to the sanctuary of the Lord at Shiloh, Hannah went into the sanctuary and prayed fervently to the Lord for relief. She vowed that if only the Lord would open her womb and give her a son, she would give that son back to God by sending him to serve at Shiloh. Eli, the priest of Shiloh, saw Hannah there engaged in earnest prayer and mistook the poor woman for a drunken prostitute. To his credit, Eli changed his tune when he discovered the truth and blessed Hannah. Hannah became pregnant and gave birth to the boy, Samuel. True to her word, she brought Samuel to Shiloh where he served at the altar with Eli.

The pathos here is striking. Hannah prays for a child, but recognizes that any such child she may have will not be hers. I cannot help but wonder whether Hannah did not experience a degree of regret as she prepared her son for the journey to Shiloh form which he would not return with her. Her boy would spend his formative years away from home. Her only contact with him would be the annual visits she made with the family to Shiloh. She seems to accept this arrangement without any sign of regret.

Twenty-nine years ago when I baptized my first child I began my sermon with the announcement that, after much prayer and consideration, Sesle and I had decided to give Sarah up for adoption. My relatives were deeply incensed and told me in no uncertain terms that it was a lame joke and in poor taste. The rest of the congregation was taken aback as well. I doubt they heard much of the rest of the sermon in which explained (I thought) my reasoning behind the opening remark. So this was probably not one of my more effective sermons. Nevertheless, I think it faithfully reflected what we are actually doing in baptism. We are giving custody of our children to Jesus. We are acknowledging that the bond they are forming at the font is deeper, stronger and more important than the bond of parenthood that ties us to them. For disciples of Jesus, family values are not the be all and end all. What, then, does it mean for the church, the people of God, to be our primary family?  How does this understanding influence the hopes, dreams and expectations we have for our children? Are we ready to sacrifice all of these to whatever purpose God may have for our children?

Luke 2:41-52

I will move from I Samuel to the gospel reading from Luke because there is such an obvious tie in. It is remarkable to me that in this one and only New Testament story from Jesus’ childhood, Jesus does exactly what we all tell our children they must never, ever do. He wanders away from his family in a strange city without telling anyone where he is going. Why this story? Why not a story of Jesus winning the Nazareth elementary school spelling bee? Or why not the story of Jesus making Eagle Scout? Confound it, Luke! Couldn’t you give us a story of Jesus that we could hold up to our kids as an example? Why give us a story of Jesus being naughty?

It does seem that Mary and Joseph need to learn what Hannah understood from the beginning. Their child is not really theirs. God has a hand on Jesus who must be about his Father’s business (that remark must have been a little hard on poor Joseph). But again, isn’t that the case with us and our children as well? Don’t we surrender ultimate custody when we hand them over to become one with Jesus in his death? I cannot say that I am at peace with that. Of course, I was delighted to be a part of two of my children’s weddings. I was happy to see each of them united with someone who loved them deeply enough to build a home with them. I was also aware, however, that they were entering into a new bond that was deeper than any bond I have ever had with them. Now there is someone in each of their lives that comes before me. On a purely intellectual level, I understand that this is exactly how it should be. But on a gut level, I would be less than honest to deny that it hurt just a little.

I wonder whether we should not be experiencing something of the same thing at baptism. Perhaps we have gone overboard in making this event solely a joyful celebration, even “cute.” Should we not rather feel something of the dread upon Abraham when God said to him, “Take your son, your only son, and offer him up to me.” I believe we are far too invested in the destinies of our children in this culture. The insanity of intense competition for spots in so called “Ivy League” preschools is just one extreme symptom of a larger societal compulsion for exercising control over our children’s destinies. When the kids become extensions of ourselves and we begin to live vicariously through them, we are not only developing a pathological outlook destructive to them. We are also violating the vows we made at their baptisms to “live with them among God’s faithful people, bring them to the word of God and the holy supper, teach them the Lord’s Prayer, the Creed, and the Ten Commandments, place in their hands the holy scriptures, and nurture them in faith and prayer, so that your children may learn to trust God, proclaim Christ through word and deed, care for others and the world God made, and work for justice and peace.” Evangelical Lutheran Worship, “Rite of Baptism.” In reality, we are only stewards or surrogate parents for our Heavenly Father who has his own calling and purpose for the children we call our own.

Psalm 148

This is a psalm of praise most likely composed after the Babylonian Exile. It appears to have been the basis of the hymn attributed to Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego in the apocryphal sections of Daniel. The hymn also has some interesting parallels to the creation story in the first chapter of Genesis. Verses 1-6 correspond to Genesis 1: 1-19 recounting the creation of the heavenly bodies. Verses 7-14 correspond to Genesis 1:20-2:4. Rogerson, J.W. and McKay, J.W., Psalms 101-150, The Cambridge Bible Commentary (c. 1977 by Cambridge University Press) p. 184. There are also similarities of language and ideas. The psalm reflects the “word theology” seen in Genesis, namely, that God creates by the power of God’s speech. Ibid p. 185. Compare with Genesis 1:3 “And God said ‘let there be light;’ and there was light” with vs. 5 “For he commanded and they were created.”

Let me make just a couple of observations here. First, the psalmist is remarkably taken with the unity of creation in all of its diverse forms. From angels, to stars and planets, to weather phenomena, to human beings, to creeping things and winged birds, all created things are united in praising the God who spoke them into existence. Praise is the echo of God’s creative word reverberating throughout the universe. We might want to reflect on whether the “image of God” in which we were created consists in this: that we speak. How much of our speech, then, is creative and life giving? Is such speech the essence of praise?

Second, note that this psalm is a prayer that asks nothing of God, expects no response and has no motive other than sheer praise. I suppose that in a productivity orientated culture that demands results, it should not surprise us that best-selling books on prayer tout “the power of prayer,” “answers to prayer,” “inner peace through prayer” and numerous other things that one might “get out” of prayer. Yet Jesus does not begin there. The Lord’s Prayer opens with a petition that God’s name be hallowed and that God’s will be done. In short, prayer is not first and foremost about us and our needs. We don’t pray out of our need but in response to God’s goodness and compassion. That is precisely what the psalmist does here. He or she praises God for no better reason than that God is God. We discover our true selves and our place in creation through praising the One who makes and sustains it by the power of his Word.

The last verse speaks of God raising up a horn for Israel as those “near to him.” The “horn” is a symbol of strength and power. (See Psalm 75). Israel’s exaltation is for the purpose of bringing all peoples to the praise of God that, in turn, will bring unity.

Colossians 3:12-17 

For an excellent summary of this remarkable letter to the Colossians, see the Summary Article by one of my Professors at Luther Seminary, Paul S. Berge, Emeritus Professor of New Testament.

There is plenty to talk about in these jam packed verses. But the one that strikes me at this time is the admonition to “sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs with thankfulness in your hearts to God.” Vs. 16. There is nothing that builds community like singing together. As one of my colleagues has often remarked, more people are driven out of a church by bad music than by bad preaching. This is true. I can easily forgive a lame sermon if the liturgy carries me and the music leaders draw me and the congregation into spirited singing. But it is impossible to ignore a musician who lacks the skill and knowledge of music to lead a faltering congregation in worship. Bad music is just painful. I feel the embarrassment of the musician as well as the frustration of the congregation. No sermon, however inspiring, articulate and well delivered can repair the damage done by disappointing music.

The church is about the last place in our society where people still sing together. Community singing is a practice fast disappearing in the rest of our public life. Other than singing the national anthem at sporting events, I cannot think of very many other occasions in which people sing together. Maybe that is at least part of what lies behind the lack of unity and polarization we experience in our nation and in our communities. We don’t have songs that unite us. That brings us full circle back to our reflections on Psalm 148. There, the entire universe finds its center in praise of its Creator. Perhaps disciples of Jesus can speak of their mission as a calling to sing for a people that has no song. I think that if I were going to preach on this aspect of the text, my hymn of the day would either be: “My Life Flows on in Endless Song (ELW 763) or “The Singer and the Song” (ELW 861).

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Sunday, December 20th

FOURTH SUNDAY OF ADVENT

Micah 5:2-5a
Luke 1:46b-55
Hebrews 10:5-10
Luke 1:39-45

PRAYER OF THE DAY: Stir up your power, Lord Christ, and come. With your abundant grace and might, free us from the sin that binds us, that we may receive you in joy and serve you always, for you live and reign with the Father and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

The Magnificat, a song sung by Mary the mother of our Lord, is the psalmody for this coming Sunday. It is a remarkable song for a lot of reasons. Mary appears certain that the downfall of the mighty, the salvation of the oppressed and the realization of God’s covenant promises for Israel are accomplished facts. Unless she is hallucinating, she must know that the Roman Empire is still firmly ensconced, Israel is still under military occupation and none of that seems likely to change anytime soon. Mary seems to be living an alternative reality where God’s promise of salvation to Israel has already been fulfilled. For her, it’s a done deal.

An unborn child, not even a person in our contemporary estimation, is a slim reed on which to base this confident assertion of God’s triumph over injustice and oppression. Yet Mary stubbornly insists that she is pregnant with Israel’s salvation. Her longing is too real to be denied. So is God’s. One of my seminary professors, Fred Gaiser I believe it was, told us that the Hebrew Scriptures are straining toward Incarnation. The refrain, “I will be your God and you will be my people” is sounded throughout the law and the prophets. That refrain forms the back drop for John the Evangelist’s declaration that “the word became flesh and dwelt among us.” It is given expression in the Book of Revelation, where John of Patmos has the angel in his vision declaring: “Behold, the dwelling of God is with men. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them.” The Incarnation, then, is where God’s longing for us meets our yearning for salvation. In Jesus, room is made for God to dwell in our midst. That is the miracle about which Mary sings. Where there is room for God, there is room for anything!

Here’s a poem called “Magnificat” by Mary Ruefle.

O Lord, I did walk upon the earth
and my footprints did keep pace with the rain
and I did note, I did note where orange birds
flew up from the puddles thou hast made
and where the toads leapt from your trenches,
but nowhere was there that I could go
for I could not rise from the firmament
upon which I was placed, and nowhere could I
so I kept until I could no more straight
then bent said I am down to make room for the more
and you half hearing did send me down
into the soul of another by mistakes
and I would like to thank you for it
from where I lie, risen in the eye of the other.

(Emphasis in original text) “Magnificat” by Mary Ruefle, from Selected Poems (c. 2010 by Wave Books, 2010). Mary Ruefle was born in 1952 outside of Pittsburg to a military family. Throughout her childhood, she travelled with her family to various places in the United States and Europe. She has written several books of poetry, essays and fiction, including Indeed, I was Pleased with the World, The Adamant, A Little White Shadow, and The Most of it. You can find out more about Mary Reufle and her books at the Poetry Foundation website.

Micah 5:2-5a

Micah is one of the Minor Prophets. He is “minor,” though, not in terms of importance but by the volume of his work. In comparison with the Major Prophets (i.e. Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel & Daniel), Micah is only a slim collection of prophetic utterances. As is the case for most of the prophets, the book of Micah is not really a book in the proper sense. It is more like an anthology or collection of the prophet’s oracles most likely compiled and arranged by his disciples after his death. It is likely that this “book” was edited and supplemented with the work of these disciples and probably reached its final form during or shortly after the Babylonian Exile following the conquest of Jerusalem in 587 B.C.E.

According to the introductory verse of the book, Micah prophesied during the reigns of Jotham, Ahaz and Hezekiah, kings of Judah. Micah 1:1. This would have made him a contemporary of the prophet Isaiah. See Isaiah 1:1. Micah was from the small village of Moresheth in Judah (Micah 1:1) and so had occasion to observe up close the injustice and oppression exercised by the rich and powerful in society, a perspective that his contemporary might have lacked, being associated as he was with the royal court in Jerusalem. See, e.g. Micha 2:1-2. He likewise deplored the abuse of the prophetic office, (Micah 3:5), the corrupt practices of Judah’s rulers (Micah 3:11) and the moral indifference of her priests (Micah 3:11).

At this point, Judah was leading a precarious existence in the shadow of the mighty Assyrian Empire. Micah witnessed the Assyrian attack that would eventually end the Northern Kingdom of Israel, thereby bringing the Assyrian army to the very border of Judah. In the face of this crisis, King Ahaz saw only two choices. He could join with the Northern Kingdom of Israel and its ally Syria in an anti-Assyrian alliance-which appeared doomed to failure. Or he could proactively seek an alliance with Assyria. The emperor of Assyria would no doubt find such an offer attractive. It would give him a small, but effective ally at the rear of his enemies. Control of Judah would also give Assyria a buffer between its own sphere of influence and Egypt, its enemy to the south. Of course, such an alliance would come at a heavy price for Judah, including the loss of her sovereignty, the requirement that she receive into her temple the gods of Assyria and heavy tribute payable through taxation of the common people. Yet as unattractive as this Assyrian alliance was, King Ahaz found it preferable to joining an anti-Assyrian military effort that was likely to end badly.

Micah (and Isaiah) saw yet a third alternative. Judah could wait for her God to deliver her-as God had always done in the past. Though Ahaz proved a disappointing king, Micah is confident that God will yet raise up from Bethlehem (the home of David) a king who, unlike Ahaz, will give to Judah and her people the peace, safety and security for which she longs. Scholars have long debated whether these words constituting the reading for Sunday are actually those of Micah or those of a prophet living after the Exile speaking these words of hope and encouragement to the exiled Jews. I side with those who attribute them to Micah. There is no mention at all of Babylon in chapter 5, but there is a clear reference to the threat posed by Assyria. Micah 5:5. Though the NRSV separates this verse from the section forming our reading, I don’t see any warrant for that in the Hebrew. Neither did the translators for the old RSV. Furthermore, Israel is not addressed here as a community of exiles, but as a nation under siege according to Micah 5:1 (which also is not included in our reading). This would fit the historical circumstances in which Micah found himself in the 8th Century B.C.E.  See Isaiah 36-37.

However one might date these prophetic words, they reflect Israel’s hope that God would finally raise up a ruler fit to be a king in the proper sense. Christians have long asserted that Jesus constitutes the fulfillment of this hope, but we cannot afford to slide too easily from Micah to the New Testament. Such an identification of Jesus with the one “who shall stand and feed his flock in the strength of the Lord” (vs. 4) raises more questions than it answers. What sort of security does Jesus provide? In what sense does he stand in “the strength of the Lord”? How can one rightly say that Jesus has “become great to the ends of the earth”? vs. 4. Clearly, Jesus is not the sort of king that would make mincemeat out of the Assyrians (or Romans) and re-establish the Davidic dynasty of old or one like it. What, then, does it mean to call “Lord” and “King” someone who was born out of wedlock in a barn and died the death of a criminal? These are the questions with which the gospels and the letters of Paul struggle.

Luke 1:39-45

I want to move directly into the gospel lesson for Sunday because it seems to address some of the questions raised by our identification of Jesus with Micah’s promised deliverer. I also believe that this narrative is absolutely essential to a proper understanding of verses 46-55 used as this Sunday’s psalmody. This remarkable visit between two women touched in a profound way by the Spirit of God sets the stage for Mary’s remarkable hymn. Elizabeth, you may recall, was infertile and so bore societal “reproach.” Mary also was carrying a child and it is tempting to draw the conclusion that she bore reproach also as the pregnancy was obviously out of wedlock.  Both women would then have been subject to human reproach, albeit for different reasons. Both women also have been divinely vindicated. This provides a delightful literary symmetry that would work nicely in crafting a sermon, but I fear that we might be reading too much into the text. It does not appear that anyone regards Mary with moral distain as a result of her pregnancy. Unlike Matthew’s gospel, Luke does not tell us of any ambivalence on Joseph’s part.  Neither does Mary express any sense of shame or give any indication that she has been subject to moral sanction from any quarter. Thus, the thrust of this encounter appears to be Elizabeth’s affirmation of Mary’s vision and recognition of her unborn child as the one whose way her own son has been sent to prepare.

Most remarkable is, once again, the vulnerability of the promised savior. The helplessness and fragility of this fetus stands out in stark relief against the world dominating might of the Roman Empire. From this vantage point, the cross seems inevitable. A confrontation between this savior and the Empire could end in no other way. What is less obvious and what Luke strives to reveal is that what appears to be inevitable defeat will turn out to have been victory. The cross, Rome’s instrument of terror by which it maintained the pax Romana (peace of Rome), is soon to be snatched from the hands of the Empire to become the symbol of a very different sort of peace-the peace of Christ.

Something else is worth noting here. The gospel of Luke contains a lengthy genealogy tracing Jesus’ ancestry from Adam through the line of David up to Joseph. Luke 3:23-38. Yet Luke takes pains to emphasize that Jesus was not the natural son of Joseph. Consequently, Joseph’s Davidic credentials appear to be irrelevant. If anybody’s genealogy matters here it is that of Mary. But we don’t know anything about her ancestry. So why does Luke include it?

One reason might be that the gospels are not “books” in the sense of having a single author writing his or her own material from start to finish. The gospels consist of parables and sayings from the preaching and teaching of the early church that were subsequently woven into a narrative or “story.” Because the gospel writers were working with material from several different sources and trying to fit it into a coherent story, there were naturally inconsistencies, seams in the narrative and places where the story does not flow naturally. That all may be so, but I think it glosses over the issue with a little too much ease. The gospel writers may have been relying upon material that was handed down to them, but they were doing more than simply stapling pages together. To the contrary, they exercised a high degree of originality and creativity in their use of stories, parables and hymns that came down to them. They took an active part in shaping the tradition to enhance the story they were trying to tell. I doubt that Luke would have intentionally allowed such a great discrepancy to stand unless he had a reason for it.

My belief is that the genealogy over against Jesus’ miraculous birth makes the same point John the Baptist elaborated on last week. “Do not say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ God is able from these stones to raise up children for Abraham.” Luke 3:8. So also, God does not need the line of David to raise up a savior for Israel. Out of sheer grace, God adopts the line of David-as he once did David himself. Jesus’ status as Savior and Lord does not stand or fall on his Davidic credentials. It stands rather upon the redemptive and grace filled work of God. Out of mercy, compassion and in faithfulness to his covenant with the line of David, God freely adopts that line identifying God’s self with God’s people Israel.

Luke 1:46b-55

This remarkable hymn of Mary, known as the Magnificat, is woven directly from the worship tradition of the Hebrew Scriptures. The closest scriptural parallel is the Song of Hannah from I Samuel 2:1-10. Like Elizabeth, Hannah was unable to have children and sought the help of the Lord. Hannah’s song is a hymn of praise and thanksgiving in response to the birth of her child, Samuel. Both hymns praise God for looking upon the humble state of the petitioners and hearing their prayers. Both hymns transition from thanks for personal deliverance to praising God for his compassion for the poor and for raising them up. The theme of the “great reversal” that will be seen throughout Luke’s gospel is reflected in Mary’s song: “God has put down the mighty from their thrones and exalted those of low degree.” Vs. 52. God’s exaltation of the humble maidservant Mary prefigures the career of Jesus who lifts up the outcast and the sinner. Also prefigured is the day when the reversal begun in Jesus will be complete. Just as John will one day bear witness to Jesus, so Elizabeth now testifies concerning the messianic destiny of Mary’s Son.

The hymn opens with the words: “My soul magnifies the Lord…” Vs. 46. This is most likely the Greek rendering of a Hebrew expression, “Praise the Lord, O my soul!” See, e.g., Psalm 146:1. The “soul” here is the “self.” Thus, the psalmist praises God with his or her whole being. One could also say that the self becomes a lens for magnifying the glory and goodness of God through the act of worship. It is likely that the hymn is a Jewish one adapted to Luke’s literary purposes here. There is nothing to suggest authorship within the early Christian community. Marshall, I. Howard, Commentary On Luke, New International Greek Testament Commentary (c. 1978 by Paternoster Press, Ltd.) p. 79. Though I would hasten to add that the earliest church, being a movement within the larger Jewish community, probably shared, adopted and adapted for its own use worship material from the synagogue. Thus, it is hazardous to attempt hard and fast distinctions here.

It is critical that Mary’s song be understood within the context of Israel’s covenant relationship with her God. It is not for general consumption. This is not a song about some general social revolution. The salvation spoken of here is very specifically understood as the vindication of Israel’s hope in the covenant promises of Israel’s God. The raising up of the humble and the leveling of the proud takes place within the covenant community when the terms of covenant existence are observed. This covenant life is what makes Israel a “light to the gentiles.” The conclusion of the hymn says it all: “God has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, as he spoke to our fathers, to Abraham and to his posterity forever.” Vss. 54-55. As gentiles, we enter into this covenant by the door graciously opened for us through Jesus.

Hebrews 10:5-10

What more can I say about Hebrews than I have already said? As I have pointed out in previous posts, I have never been convinced that this epistle argues for the superiority of Christianity over Judaism, though it has been so interpreted. I believe rather that the author of Hebrews is struggling with the trauma to early believers resulting from the destruction of the Temple of Jerusalem in 70 A.D. 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. Judaism dealt with this event by refocusing its worship more deeply in the life of the synagogue and in the study of Torah. Disciples of Jesus turned to the redemptive suffering, death and resurrection of Jesus as celebrated in the worship of the church.

The quotation attributed to Christ in verses 5-7 appears to have been cobbled together from a few Hebrew sayings found in various forms in Psalm 40:6-8; I Samuel 15:22; Psalm 50:8-15; Isaiah 1:10-17; Jeremiah 7:21-26; Hosea 6:6. It is not surprising that the quotation is not precise. The author appears to be working from memory rather than in the stacks of the library. For example, in Chapter 2:6 s/he introduces a citation from Psalm 8 with the words, “It has been testified somewhere…” We need to remember that in this age, centuries before the invention of the printing press, books were available only to a tiny fraction of the population. Reading was a rare skill and a useless one to common people with nothing to read. Consequently, one’s Bible was whatever had been committed to memory-and that typically constituted a lot of material. This is evident from the letter to the Hebrews which is saturated with quotations from the Hebrew Scriptures (though not with citations!).

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.

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Sunday, December 13th

THIRD SUNDAY OF ADVENT

Zephaniah 3:14-20
Isaiah 12:2-6
Philippians 4:4-7
Luke 3:7-18

PRAYER OF THE DAY: Stir up the wills of your faithful people, Lord God, and open our ears to the preaching of John, that, rejoicing in your salvation, we may bring forth the fruits of repentance; through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

John the Baptist is an enigmatic figure in the New Testament. I read a commentator recently who lamented the fact that we have lost the “historical” John in the mists of history and all that remains of him is the gospel portrayal of a literary character whose only role is to magnify the ministry of Jesus. Would that we were all so “lost!” Would that all of us disciples could die so thoroughly to self that others see in us only Jesus magnified. Would that we were a people whose lives are a total mystery apart from Jesus’ life, death and resurrection. We are never more real than when our lives are lived out of our relationship with Jesus. That beats the hell out of whatever “historical” existence there might be for us.

In last Sunday’s gospel John announced the Lord’s coming and urged us, in the words of Isaiah the prophet, to “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.” Luke 3:4. This Sunday he tells us concretely what that looks like. In response to John’s bold proclamation that the reign of God is immanent, the people begin to ask “what shall we do?” vss. 10; 12; and 14. The answer is starkly simple. Live now as though God’s reign has already come. Share your food and clothing. Stop exploiting your career and social standing to enrich yourself at the expense of others. This is not just whinny exhortation or even a cry for social justice. It is the good news of the arrival of God’s reign. Vs. 18. One either believes John and begins orientating one’s life toward the priorities and patterns of the world to come; or one rejects John’s good news and continues living under the old order of hierarchy, patriarchy, class distinctions and violent oppression.

Advent is that one time during the church year when the radical nature of the good news threatens to break through all of our ecclesiastical efforts to domesticate it. I have listened ad nauseam to theologians in my own Lutheran tradition harp on the paradoxical relationship between the “already” and the “not yet” in the reign of God proclaimed by Jesus. What irks me is not so much their pointing out the tension between these two seemingly contradictory assertions concerning the kingdom. That is real enough. My objection is that we Lutherans have always laid far too much emphasis on the “not yet.” Announcing the “already” rattles us. We are suspicious of the unexpected and disruptive. Revolution terrifies us. Being American protestant ever white and ever polite progressives, we prefer gradual, evolutionary, incremental change. The Sermon on the Mount is fine as long as it can safely be understood as an unattainable ideal designed to drive us to the despair of ever attaining it and to send us fleeing to the throne of grace for a dispensation from it. Or we can tolerate it as God’s expressed intention for life in the “not yet” side of things, but certainly not applicable to the “real world” as we now experience it. For now, we must be satisfied with modest tweaks to late stage capitalism and a kinder, gentler nationalism because the sort of world in which the Sermon on the Mount can actually be practiced is “not yet.”

John the Baptist doesn’t see it that way. For him, there is no “not yet.” It’s “already,” period. Why else would you empty your closet to clothe a stranger or raid your refrigerator to feed somebody you don’t even know? Why would a wealthy tax collector or a soldier of the king begin to doubt the legitimacy of their life’s work? Only because the “already” is eclipsing the “not yet.” John’s preaching made the impending reign of God more real to his hearers than the world driven by survival of the fittest. John is living in the “already.” Let the “not yet” be damned.

The “already” is meant to be lived in the midst of the “not yet.” To be sure, “already” takes the shape of the cross as long as it is still “not yet.” To a world thoroughly conformed to the “not yet,” the lives of those living in the “already” are something of a mystery. They seem impractical, ineffective and nonsensical. Yet if you are convinced that God’s reign is immanent and has indeed already broken into the present moment, conforming your heart and behavior to that reality is about the most pragmatic step you can take.

Here is a poem by Wendell Berry that captures what I think it must be like to live the “already” in the heart of the “not yet.”

Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front

Love the quick profit, the annual raise,
vacation with pay. Want more
of everything ready-made. Be afraid
to know your neighbors and to die.
And you will have a window in your head.

Not even your future will be a mystery
any more. Your mind will be punched in a card
and shut away in a little drawer.

When they want you to buy something
they will call you. When they want you
to die for profit they will let you know.

So, friends, every day do something
that won’t compute.
Love the Lord.

Love the world.
Work for nothing.

Take all that you have and be poor.

Love someone who does not deserve it.

Denounce the government and embrace
the flag.
Hope to live in that free
republic for which it stands.

Give your approval to all you cannot
understand.
Praise ignorance, for what man
has not encountered he has not destroyed.

Ask the questions that have no answers.

Invest in the millenium.
Plant sequoias.

Say that your main crop is the forest
that you did not plant,
that you will not live to harvest.

Say that the leaves are harvested
when they have rotted into the mold.

Call that profit.
Prophesy such returns.

Put your faith in the two inches of humus
that will build under the trees
every thousand years.

Listen to carrion — put your ear
close, and hear the faint chattering
of the songs that are to come.

Expect the end of the world.
Laugh.

Laughter is immeasurable.
Be joyful
though you have considered all the facts.

So long as women do not go cheap
for power, please women more than men.

Ask yourself: Will this satisfy
a woman satisfied to bear a child?
Will this disturb the sleep
of a woman near to giving birth?

Go with your love to the fields.

Lie down in the shade.
Rest your head
in her lap.
Swear allegiance
to what is nighest your thoughts.

As soon as the generals and the politicos
can predict the motions of your mind,
lose it.
Leave it as a sign
to mark the false trail, the way
you didn’t go.

Be like the fox
who makes more tracks than necessary,
some in the wrong direction.

Practice resurrection.

From The Mad Farmer Poems, (c. 2008 by Wendell Berry). Wendell Berry is a poet, novelist, farmer and environmental activist. You can read more about him and his many works at the Poetry Foundation website.

Zephaniah 3:14-20

The book of Zephaniah is one of the twelve Minor Prophets. They are so called not because they are any less important than Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel and Daniel (Major Prophets), but because these prophetic collections are much smaller. Zephaniah is only three chapters long. The name, “Zephaniah” means “Yahweh

Hides” or “Yahweh is concealed.” “Sophonias (Zephaniah),” Catholic Encyclopedia (c. 2012 by Kevin Knight). In the opening verses, Zephaniah’s ancestry is traced through Hezekiah. Zephaniah 1:1. It is not known whether this reference is to King Hezekiah who reigned over Judah between 715 B.C.E. and 687 B.C.E.  Hezekiah was one of the few kings that gets a favorable rating from the books of Kings and Chronicles. The prophets Isaiah and Micah both were active during his reign and it seems that he was somewhat receptive to their preaching. According to the opening verses of the book, Zephaniah’s preaching took place during the reign of King Josiah from 640 B.C.E. through 609 B.C.E. It is therefore possible that Zephaniah could have been sired by Hezekiah through one of his concubines. On the other hand, because Hezekiah was such a well-regarded king, it would not be unusual for the name to become popular. The Hezekiah named as Zephaniah’s father is not identified as a king or given any royal appellation. Consequently, Zephaniah’s royal lineage is not a foregone conclusion.

It is also thought that Zephaniah’s prophetic ministry must have come prior to the reforms introduced by King Josiah ten years into his reign that are reported in II King 23:4-25. Zephaniah criticized severely the idolatrous worship of Baal and Asherah in Jerusalem, all traces of which Josiah rooted out of the city in the course of his restoration and purification of worship at the Temple. Zephaniah 1:4-6. Zephaniah was also unsparing in his criticism of “the officials and the king’s sons.” Zephaniah 1:8. It seems unlikely that he would have leveled such criticisms during a period of time when the King was implementing the very reforms Zephaniah was demanding. Thus, it is likely that the prophecies we have from the prophet Zephaniah date from between 640 B.C.E and 630 B.C.E., the first decade of Josiah’s reign prior to the institution of his reforms.

The book can be divided into three sections corresponding to its three chapters. The first chapter focuses chiefly on the corruption of the royal court and priesthood in Jerusalem. Zephaniah threatens the nation with divinely wrought destruction for its sins. In the second chapter the prophet expands the threat of judgment to Israel’s enemies. The third chapter begins with what appears to be further indictments against Judah, but the prophet’s tone changes abruptly after chapter five. Beginning with Zephaniah 3:6, the prophet begins to prophecy judgment against “the nations,” and words of comfort directed to Jerusalem. This is the section from which our lesson for Sunday is taken. The prophet promises that God will rescue Judah, restore her fortunes and defeat her enemies. Instead of bringing a judgment of destruction, God now declares a removal of destruction. Some scholars have explained this abrupt change by attributing these verses to a prophet other than Zephaniah who preached during or shortly after the period of the Babylonian Exile. Montague, George T., Zephaniah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Lamentations and Obadiah, Old Testament Reading Guide (c. 1961 by Confraternity of Christian Doctrine) pp. 22-23. This is quite possible. Like other prophetic books, Zephaniah is a compilation of prophetic utterances given at different times under different circumstances. As was the case with both Isaiah and Jeremiah, it is possible that the work of one of Zephaniah’s disciples or an editor might have found its way into the book. But I am doubtful for the following reasons: First, there is there is no mention of Jerusalem’s destruction, Babylon, the Exile or the return from exile. Second, the theme of the nations being cleansed and united by the glory of God shining forth from Jerusalem is part and parcel of the earlier prophecies of Isaiah. This week’s lesson reflects these same themes that are entirely consistent with the earlier prophetic tradition of Isaiah and so fit into Zephaniah’s period of ministry in the late seventh century.

God’s promise to “live in the midst [of the people]” reflects the longing of Advent. Like Israel, the church is a people formed by its longing for God’s reign. We struggle between the reality in which we live on the one hand that is characterized by violence, injustice and cruelty and on the other hand an alternate reality proclaimed to us by the scriptures in which God’s will is done on earth as in heaven. For us the latter reality is the more real and compelling even though we cannot see it yet.

Isaiah 12:2-6

As I have pointed out before, the book of the prophet Isaiah is regarded by most Hebrew Scripture scholars to be the work of three different prophets. Chapters of Isaiah 1-39 are attributed in the main to Isaiah the prophet who lived and prophesied in the 8th Century during the reigns of Judean kings Jotham, Ahaz and Hezekiah. Chapters of Isaiah 40-55 are attributed to a prophet who preached toward the end of the Babylonian exile of the Jews, declaring to them God’s forgiveness and God’s promise to lead them back from exile to their homeland in Palestine. Chapters of Isaiah 56-66 are the words of a prophet addressing the Jews who in fact returned to Palestine and were struggling to rebuild their community under difficult circumstances. But this neat three part division is still a little too simplistic. All three prophetic collections underwent editing, revisions and additions in the course of composition. Consequently, there are many sections of First Isaiah (Isaiah 1-39) that probably belong to a prophet of a much later time. So it appears that the words from our lesson, which fall within the chapters attributed to First Isaiah of the 8th Century, are more likely from a later time. Most likely, they were placed by the editor as a poetic doxology to the collection of prophetic utterances by Isaiah in the first eleven chapters of the book. Rolf Jacobson, Professor of Old Testament from Luther Seminary in St. Paul, M.N. attributes these verses to the prophet who gave us Second Isaiah (Isaiah 40-55). See Commentary on Workingpreacher.org. I believe they also fit into the context of disillusionment and despair following the return from exile addressed by Third Isaiah (Isaiah 56-66). There does not appear to be enough in terms of historical references to date it with any certainty. The call to praise God and acknowledge God as savior is naturally appropriate for Advent which looks back to Jesus who came and forward to the Christ who is to come.

Philippians 4:4-7

As I pointed out last week, the letter to the Philippians is not one, but actually three different letters sent by Paul to the church at Phillipi 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 rival missionaries who require the circumcision of Gentiles)

See the post for Sunday, December 6, 2015 for more particulars on this letter.

As was the case last week, so this week the reading is from the second of these three letters and constitutes its conclusion. Paul reminds the Philippian church that the Lord is near and encourages them to rejoice. Once again, it needs to be emphasized that for followers of Jesus the announcement that “The Lord is at hand” (Vs. 5) does not conjure up images of terror, divine wrath and damnation. It elicits rejoicing. Advent is above all a season of joy. We do not face the future with dread. We look to tomorrow with hope, but not out of some blind optimism that everything will work out in the end. No, our hope is grounded in the promise of Jesus’ return to reign in gentleness and peace.

Luke 3:7-18

Last week’s lesson introduced John as the voice crying, “in the wilderness, prepare the way of the Lord.” This week, we come face to face with John the preacher. Luke’s account of John’s preaching differs significantly from the Gospel of Matthew in one respect. In Matthew, John addresses only the Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism with the scathing words: “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” In Luke, this stinging rebuke is directed at the “multitudes that came to be baptized.” Vs. 7. We don’t know much about John’s audience. Luke does not tell us who was among the multitudes. We learn a few verses later, however, that there were soldiers and tax collectors among them. We can safely assume that the folks who sought John out and came to receive his baptism were looking for a renewed Israel, perhaps along the lines of Zephaniah’s vision. That would have involved an end to corruption within the priesthood and worship in the Temple-just as rampant in John’s day as in that of Zephaniah. They might also have been looking for restoration of Israel as a great kingdom. Or they may have expected some miraculous transformation of the present world into a world in which Israel would be glorified rather than downtrodden. Again, this last expectation would have been consistent with the hope expressed in our reading from Zephaniah. But whatever they were expecting, John makes clear to them that the change they are hoping for must begin with them. Submitting to John’s baptism without repentance would be an empty and futile ritual exercise. It is not enough to be a descendent of Abraham (or a confirmed Lutheran). It is fruits, not roots that matter.

Understandably, the people respond, “Well then, what are we to do? What are these fruits you are talking about?” John does not have to look far for an answer. His reply concerning the fruits of repentance is squarely within the framework of prophetic tradition. See, e.g. Isaiah 58:1-9:

Shout out, do not hold back!
Lift up your voice like a trumpet!
Announce to my people their rebellion,
to the house of Jacob their sins.
Yet day after day they seek me
and delight to know my ways,
as if they were a nation that practiced righteousness
and did not forsake the ordinance of their God;
they ask of me righteous judgments,
they delight to draw near to God.
“Why do we fast, but you do not see?
Why humble ourselves, but you do not notice?”
Look, you serve your own interest on your fast day,
and oppress all your workers.
Look, you fast only to quarrel and to fight
and to strike with a wicked fist.
Such fasting as you do today
will not make your voice heard on high.
Is such the fast that I choose,
a day to humble oneself?
Is it to bow down the head like a bulrush,
and to lie in sackcloth and ashes?
Will you call this a fast,
a day acceptable to the LORD?
Is not this the fast that I choose:
to loose the bonds of injustice,
to undo the thongs of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
and to break every yoke?
Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,
and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover them,
and not to hide yourself from your own kin?
Then your light shall break forth like the dawn,
and your healing shall spring up quickly;
your vindicator shall go before you,
the glory of the LORD shall be your rear guard.
Then you shall call, and the LORD will answer;
you shall cry for help, and he will say, Here I am.

Repentance that is all about ritual formalities like fasting, wearing of sackcloth and ashes falls far short of what the Lord requires. Repentance is turning back to the Lord and one cannot do that without turning toward the sister or brother in need. One of the most ancient and urgent commands in the Mosaic law is that “You shall open wide your hand to the poor in the land.”  Deuteronomy 15:11.

The temptation here is to jump too quickly from John’s admonitions here to a more generalized charity that reduces the poor to an abstraction. Note well that both the prophetic passage from Isaiah and John’s preaching is directed toward Israel, not the world at large. These proclamations make sense only to people living in a covenant relationship with the God of Israel such as Israel itself or disciples of Jesus who are united with that God through baptism. This is particularly important for us American Christians to keep in mind as we frequently confuse America with the people of God. The Bible was written to shape the life of the church, not to reform the structures of American society. Furthermore, the sharing that John speaks about is to take place within the frame work of a covenant people called out of the rest of the world to be a “light to the nations.” So the “poor” here are not the starving masses, but the fellow in the next pew who lost his job and cannot afford coats for his kids. John is not asking us to immerse ourselves in the war against poverty. He just wants the extra coat in our closet for the brother without one.

I might be criticized here for lack of a social conscience. One irate person who heard me make this point responded, “Don’t you think Christians should be concerned about social justice?” My response was that I think everyone should be concerned about social justice whether they are Christians or not. But social justice is not enough. Jesus did not merely feed the hungry. He invited them to the messianic banquet. Jesus did not simply make donations for the care of lepers. He touched them. The prophet Isaiah did not call upon Israel to build homeless shelters. He told them to “bring the homeless into your house.” There are disciples of Jesus who do just that. I know, for example, of families that have taken on several foster children, some of them with serious emotional problems and physical disabilities, all in an effort to provide for them a secure and loving home. One example of precisely this thing is Reba Place Fellowship in Evanston, Illinois. This is an intentional Christian community dedicated to “freely sharing life and resources with one another and with our neighbors in order to demonstrate God’s peace and justice in the world.” I encourage you to check out their website.

I have been told repeatedly that, while these individual efforts are commendable, the problems of homelessness and poverty are systemic and that we need systemic reform of one sort or another to solve them. That might well be true, but so is the converse. Systemic change will never overcome poverty as long as we continue to view the poor as social problems to be solved rather than as sisters and brothers precious both to God and to us. The church is called to be a community where the poor are welcomed as valued partners rather than tolerated as burdens. Let me add here that I think we could be and should be doing a far better job with this. That is one reason why we need to hear John’s preaching so much.

How, then, does John prepare the way of the Lord? Our lesson concludes, noting that “With these and many other exhortations, [John] preached good news to the people.” But in what sense is this good news? John tells us of this “coming one” that “his winnowing fork is in his hand to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” This is an unsettling image, but maybe that is the point. Can you really expect to be baptized with fire and not get burned? If repentance is about a radical change of direction, it stands to reason that some things are going to have to be left behind-like the notion that you can ride into the kingdom of God on the proper pedigree. Some things must be given up-like the extra food in the pantry and the extra coats in the closet. But the promise of health is well worth the pain of the cure. The judgment John proclaims is not one of doom, but of promise. The unquenchable fire is for purifying, refining and renewing-not for destroying. That flame is lit each time Jesus calls another disciple to follow him. Throughout the way that leads finally to the cross, that flame burns to strengthen, purify and refine the new creation.

I think a word or two should be said also about John’s words to the soldiers and the tax collectors. In all likelihood, the soldiers belonged to Herod Antipas who ruled Galilee under leave from Rome. Ellis, Earl E., The Gospel of Luke, The New Century Bible Commentary (c. 1974 by Marshall, Morgan & Scott) p. 90. We should not think of these folks as disciplined members of an armed service doing a patriotic duty for the good of their country under a strict code of military ethics. These “soldiers” to which Luke refers, were more like armed thugs hired to protect a local warlord. Their wages were meager, but that did not matter because they had a license to take whatever they wished from the local population to supplement their income. Caird, G.B., Saint Luke, The Pelican New Testament Commentaries (c. 1963 by G.B. Caird, pub. by Penguin Books, Ltd.) p. 73. The tax collectors were not civil servants. They were free agents who, through payment, patronage or some other means obtained the right to collect taxes for Rome within a given geographical area. They were told generally the amount they needed to collect for Rome and whatever else they could manage to extort was their living. Schweizer, Eduard, The Good News According to Luke (c. 1984 by John Knox Press) p. 73. The tax collectors most frequently encountered by Jesus, and probably John as well, were at the very bottom of the food chain. They were Jews recruited by regional tax collectors to do the dirty work of extracting revenue from their neighbors. Naturally, they also had to make a living and so collected a premium of their own. Thus, one must wonder how John could expect a soldier of Herod to make do with his wages or a tax collector to extract no more than what his principal required. In both cases, obedience would result in poverty.

Some scholars have suggested that Luke, who was writing in a time long after these events took place, was projecting into the story a more respectable means of taxation and a more developed military ethic than existed in the time of Jesus. In other words, we have an anachronism. I don’t find this explanation convincing. Luke consistently takes a very radical view of discipleship throughout his gospel. Sometimes the shape of discipleship is poverty, persecution and even death. I believe therefore that John knew full well that he was calling the soldiers and the tax collectors to a life that would put them at odds with their professions and their loyalties. But, once again, like the priceless pearl or the treasure in the field, the reign of God is worth letting go of everything else to pursue. Along with the rest of the multitude, the soldiers and tax collectors are promised a baptism with the Holy Spirit and with fire.

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