Archive for January, 2016
Fourth Sunday after Epiphany
Prayer of the Day: Almighty and ever-living God, increase in us the gifts of faith, hope, and love; and that we may obtain what you promise, make us love what you command, through your Son, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.
In our first lesson God sends a reluctant young Jeremiah to “pluck up and to break down” great nations and to “build and to plant” the seeds of a new covenant. For accomplishing this daunting assignment, he will have nothing more than the words God is giving him to speak. That should not strike us as remarkable. Words are powerful weapons. They incite revolutions, foment rebellion and inspire societal transformation that topples kingdoms and dissolves empires. The words of Dr. Martin Luther King ignited a movement that brought institutional segregation to an end. It was largely the influence of new ideas expressed in the words of dissent that moved the peoples of eastern Europe to end the regimes that held them captive for half a century. But words are also instrumental in holding together the status quo, giving ideological justification to oppression and sanctifying violence. Sinister racist sentiments, once expressed in ugly epitaphs we no longer tolerate, still wrap themselves around seemingly benign slogans such as “state’s rights,” “America first,” “make America great again” and the relentless rant against “political correctness.” Words can ruin friendships, destroy reputations and undermine a community’s confidence in its leaders. Words can be either allies or enemies of the truth. In times of violence and injustice, the prophet’s task is to marshal words in defense of truthful speech.
Jeremiah lived through the destruction of his nation. He witnessed the violence, cruelty and oppression that preceded Jerusalem’s destruction and that followed in its wake. There was no shortage of prophets in Jeremiah’s time. Most of them were prophesying victory, peace and safety for the people of Judah as the storm clouds of war with Babylon gathered on the horizon. Hananiah, Jeremiah’s prophetic nemesis, assured the people that they had nothing to fear from Babylon, that God would break that oppressive empire’s yolk and restore the kingdom of Judah to its glory days. Hananiah’s promises were spoken in the covenant language of scripture. More than a century before the prophet Isaiah had foretold an age of peace and prosperity brought about by the glory of the Lord. In Isaiah’s age, God had in fact broken the Assyrian army at the gates of Jerusalem sparing the city, the temple and the line of David. Why should the people doubt that God would do the same for Israel once again? Why continue to endure Babylonian domination? Why not stand up defiantly against the tyrant and trust in God’s promises to deliver Zion holy city and defend the temple?
Jeremiah understood that Hananiah was employing the language of scriptural truth to prophesy lies. He knew that Babylon was not the greatest threat to Israel’s existence and that victory on the battle field would not amount to salvation. Israel’s fixation on preserving the temple, the institution of the Davidic monarchy and her territorial sovereignty prevented her from recognizing her deepest need. Israel’s problem was that, as currently constituted, she had ceased altogether to be the faithful covenant partner God desired. Faith in God’s goodness had gradually degenerated into a sense of entitlement, a deluded belief that God was somehow obliged to save Israel’s beloved institutions no matter how unjust, oppressive and idolatrous she had become. What Israel was so desperately trying to save were the very things destroying her soul. The nation of Israel had to die so that the people of Israel could be reborn. God was taking away the hallmarks of Israel’s identity because that identity had become so monstrously distorted. Moreover, God had something far more precious to give Israel than what she was about to lose. That is why Jeremiah insisted that there would be no miraculous rescue this time. There was no getting around God’s judgment, but there would be a way through it to the dawn of a new day. But this good news had to be heard as bad news before it could be received as good.
In this war of words between the two prophets, Hananiah was the winner-at least in the short term. The king and the religious establishment put their trust in an ill-fated insurrection against Babylon inspired by Hananiah’s promise of divine assistance. Jeremiah suffered mob violence, religious persecution and imprisonment for the word he was compelled to speak. Yet the Bible contains not the book of Hananiah, but the oracles of Jeremiah. It was finally the words of the true and faithful prophet that enabled the exiled Jews to make sense of the terrible judgment that had befallen them and to recognize in that judgment the compassion of a God who loved them too much to allow them to continue in their faithless and self-destructive ways. Both Hananiah and Jeremiah spoke the words of scripture. But only Jeremiah spoke the Word of God.
Words, metaphors, similes, and figures of speech in the hands of false prophets, demagogues and hate groups are lethal weapons of destruction. This is particularly true where the words in question are taken from the Bible. But in the mouth of a prophet, words pluck up and tear down evil principalities and powers while planting and building up the gentle reign of God. Ours is the God who is not merely as good as his word. John’s gospel tells us that God is God’s Word. Our God is the God who speaks the universe into existence. Our God meets us in the medium of human speech. For that reason, language is holy. Every prophet knows (as does every poet) that words must be handled with discernment, reverence, wonder and awe.
Here are the words of poet Eavan Boland who, like Jeremiah, prophesied in a time of violence.
Writing in a Time of Violence
In my last year in College
I set out
to write an essay on
the Art o Rhetoric. I had yet to find
the country already lost to me
in song and figure as I scribbled down
names for sweet euphony
and safe digression.
And when I came to the word insinuate
I saw that language could writhe and creep
and the lore of snakes
which I had learned as a child not to fear-
because the Saint had sent them out of Ireland-
Chiasmus, Litols, Periphrasis Old
indices and agents of persuasion. How
I remember them in that room where
a girl is writing at a desk with
dusk already in
the streets outside. I can see her. I could say to her-
we will live, we have lived
where language is concealed. It is perilous.
We will be—we have been—citizens
of its hiding place. But it is too late
to shut the book of satin phrases,
to refuse to enter
an evening bitter with peat smoke,
where newspaper sellers shout headlines
and friends call out their farewells in
a city of whispers
and interiors where
the dear vowels
Irish Ireland ours are
absorbed into Autumn air,
are out of earshot in the distances
we are stepping into where we never
imagine words such as hate
and territory and the like—unbanished still
as they always would be—wait
and are waiting under
beautiful speech. To strike.
By Eavan Boland. Source: Poems in a Time of Violence, (c. 1994 by Eavan Boland, pub. by W.W. Norton Company, Inc.). Eavan Boland was born in Dublin, Ireland in 1944. She spent her girlhood in London and New York, returning to Ireland to attend secondary school in Killiney and college at Trinity College in Dublin. Boland’s poetry explores the complex experience of women in Irish history and culture, challenging traditional conceptions of womanhood and offering fresh perspectives on their roles. You can learn more about Eavan Boland and read more of her poetry on the Poetry Foundation website.
For an excellent overview of the Book of Jeremiah, see the article by Professor Terrence Fretheim of Luther Seminary, St. Paul, MN at enterthebible.org. In this Sunday’s lesson, the prophet Jeremiah receives his call from the Lord. It is hard to pinpoint the precise timing of Jeremiah’s call. The opening lines of the book state that Jeremiah’s prophetic career began in the thirteenth year of the reign of King Josiah of Judah. Yet there is no reference in Jeremiah’s preaching to the extensive campaign against idolatry undertaken by this king that would surely have been favored by Jeremiah or to the king’s untimely death. This has led scholars to suspect that Jeremiah’s call may actually have taken place during the reign of Josiah’s successors. Some scholars have suggested that Jeremiah perceived his first basic encounter and call from God to have occurred before he was “formed in the womb.” Thus, the thirteenth year of Josiah’s reign may have been the prophet’s birthday where God “consecrated” him. His call might therefore have taken place after Josiah’s death. See Holladay, William M., “The Years of Jeremiah’s Preaching,” Interpretation, Vol. 37, No. 2 (April 1983) pp. 146-159.
More important than the precise date of Jeremiah’s call is the general historical context. It was the beginning of the age of empires. Assyria had dominated the middle east for nearly a century. When its power began to wane, young Josiah stepped into the power vacuum expanding the borders of his country further than at any time since the days of David and Solomon. He also launched a campaign to purge Israel of all pagan influences and restore the proper worship of Israel’s God. The king’s political success and his religious reforms proved short lived. Josiah lost his life opposing Egypt’s failed attempt to prop up what was left of Assyria now under siege from the rising Babylonian empire. Judah once again became a mere vassal of an imperial power, this time Egypt. In less than a year, she would be under the king of Babylon. Thus, Jeremiah was born into a turbulent era of transition. The age of city states and petty regional kingdoms was coming to an end. The age of empires had begun.
Prophets are often characterized as idealistic dreamers out of touch with geopolitical realities. Reliance upon the Lord is a pious, but unhelpful piece of advice to the king of a tiny nation caught between multiple superpowers. But Jeremiah was no novice when it came to analysis of political realities. Better than any of the kings to whom he prophesied, Jeremiah could see clearly that the world was changing. He understood the difficult truth that Israel’s rulers could not comprehend: that there was no future for Judah as an independent kingdom under the line of David. Trying to restore the glories of that kingdom in the present age was a sure recipe for disaster. If you have read the entire book of Jeremiah, then you know that his message was rejected by the Judean leadership which was hell bent on winning independence for Judah from Babylon. Jeremiah saw this stubborn determination to pursue a hopelessly impossible dream as a rejection of Israel’s God and a lack of trust in God’s ability to deliver to Judah a new and better day.
“Before you were in the womb I knew you.” Vs. 5. We should not get too caught up in speculation about God’s foreknowledge and how much of Jeremiah’s life was “predestined.” The emphasis should be placed on the words, “I knew you.” The Hebrew word for “know” used here denotes a particularly intimate sort of knowledge. The indication here is that Jeremiah is to be more than a message boy. His career will be one of intimacy with the God who called him from the womb. This relationship between the Lord and his messenger is in some respects analogous to a marriage. If you read on in this marvelous book you will discover that this “marriage” was frequently rocky. Jeremiah sometimes complained bitterly that God had let him down, deceived him and left him to the mercy of his enemies. Jeremiah 20:7-12. God was often less than gentle in responding to Jeremiah. Jeremiah 15:15-21. But that only underscores the freedom Jeremiah felt to express his deepest sentiments to the God whose word consumed his entire being.
“Ah, Lord God! Behold, I do not know how to speak, for I am only a youth.” Vs. 6. One thing most prophets seem to have in common is low self-esteem. Jeremiah thinks he is too young and inexperienced. Moses felt he was not sufficiently articulate. Isaiah thought he was too sinful. Amos would not even accept the title of prophet. These are not the kind of extraverted, can do, positive thinking types that denominational leadership seeks for “mission developers.” It seems that genuine prophets come by their calling only reluctantly.
This psalm is remarkably similar to Psalm 31. It also contains phrases and expressions that are nearly identical to other psalms. Consequently, some scholars have speculated that Psalm 71 is of more recent composition, having borrowed from these older psalms. Rogerson, J.W. and McKay, J.W., Psalms 51-100, The Cambridge Bible Commentary (c. 1977 by Cambridge University Press) p. 106. That reasoning is not entirely convincing to me, however. There is no reference to any historical event that would allow us to date this psalm. Therefore, it seems just as likely to me that Psalm 31 and the other psalms borrowed from Psalm 71 which could as easily be the more ancient. I know. Who cares?
The personal details in this psalm are remarkable. If you read the psalm in its entirety, you will discover that the psalmist is an old man or woman. His or her “strength is spent.” Vs. 9. Yet the psalmist is beset by enemies who see his or her weakness as evidence that “God has forsaken him” and that it is therefore safe to “size him” for “there is none to deliver him.” vs. 11. (I should explain here that the use of gender in the Hebrew language is not heavily tied to the male/female dichotomy. Consequently, we cannot draw any conclusions about the psalmist’s sex from the fact that the English translators have consistently rendered the pronouns in this psalm masculine.) Though understandably concerned, the psalmist does not come to this crisis with a blank slate. The psalmist has experienced God’s salvation throughout his or her life. Because God has a track record of faithfulness, the psalmist is confident that, “Thou who hast made me see many sore troubles wilt revive me again; from the depths of the earth thou wilt bring me up again.” Vs. 20.
Once again, this prayer illustrates the breadth of human experience found in the psalms running the gambit from youthful insecurity in the face of life’s complexities to the struggles of aging and confronting death. I cannot emphasize how important it is to make these psalms your friends. The earlier in life you do that, the greater the source of comfort, strength and wisdom they will become.
This is one of those texts known even to people who have never picked up a Bible. Just as the Twenty Third Psalm is a staple at every funeral, the Thirteenth Chapter of Corinthians is nearly universal at every Christian wedding. Though much of what Paul has to say in this chapter is applicable to marriage, that is not what was on Paul’s mind as he wrote these words. Recall that Paul is in the midst of a letter addressed to a divided and fractious church. In last Sunday’s lesson, Paul pointed out that the Church, even the sorely divided Corinthian church, is the Body of Christ. That means that we are all individually members of that church. We do not think or conduct ourselves as autonomous individuals. We harmonize our lives to the needs of the Body of which we are part.
Clearly, the congregation in Corinth was a long way from that kind of harmonious living-as is every church to which I have ever belonged. But Paul insists that his view of the church is not just an impossible utopian ideal. Nor is it merely an aspiration. The flesh and blood church of today with all its warts, short comings and sins is the Body of Christ. I repeat: this is not just a metaphor. Paul really means to say that the church is Christ’s resurrected Body. It is a broken and wounded Body, to be sure, but it is nevertheless a Body animated by God’s Holy Spirit. Though ever dying, it is always being called back to life again. It is always in the process of healing. How, then, do sinful and self-centered men and woman live together as one Body? That is “the more excellent way” to which Paul referred at the end of Chapter 12 last week and discusses in Chapter 13 this week.
Though written in highly polished prose bordering on poetry, this chapter speaks of a love that is anything but gushy and sentimental. “Love is patient.” Vs. 4. That means accepting the fact that the church is made up of people that are broken and, more importantly, that I cannot fix them. Still, I have to love them anyway even though they probably will never change to my liking. “Love is not jealous or boastful.” Vs. 4. That is to say, it often goes unrequited and that has to be OK. I may never be properly thanked for what I do to build up the Body or appreciated for all the sacrifices I make. But if that’s a problem for me, then my love is not the sort that Paul is talking about. “Love does not insist on its own way.” Vs. 5. Not even when I happen to be right; not even when it is a matter of principle; not even when every thinking person would have to agree that my way is really the only way forward. That is sometimes a bitter pill to swallow. When you have a vision for mission or a dream for your church’s future that seems heaven sent, it is hard to hear the rest of the Body tell you that they cannot see it or do not share it. It is at just such times that I am most strongly tempted to abandon the way of love and resort to more coercive political tactics.
“Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.” Vs. 7. There was once a young pastor fresh out of seminary assigned to a difficult congregation. No matter what the young pastor did, someone in the congregation found fault with him. After one particularly discouraging day, Jesus came by to visit him. The pastor was overjoyed to see Jesus and began immediately to pour out his troubles to the Lord. Jesus listened patiently, nodding his head and giving the young pastor a knowing smile. “Yes,” said Jesus. “A pastor’s first parish can be a difficult challenge. I remember my first church. There were only twelve members. Not one of them ever understood a single sermon I ever preached. All they could ever talk about was who should be in charge and who was the greatest. The treasurer was constantly pilfering church funds for his own use and then he had the nerve to turn me into the authorities for just thirty pieces of silver. My congregational president, who promised to stand by me to the end, told everyone after I was arrested that he didn’t even know me. The rest of my congregation deserted me and left me hanging on a cross. But enough about me. You were telling me about the problems in your congregation.”
Though this story involves a pastor, it applies as well to anyone who takes discipleship and service in the church seriously. The church is not the place to come for coddling. It is where you go to be transformed into the image of Christ. It is the place you go to be built up into the Body of Christ. Love is the cement that holds a church together. Forgiveness is the tar that patches up the breaches in its walls. The church is not a gathering of people who are a moral cut above the rest. We are flawed and broken people who cannot heal ourselves, but who believe that the Holy Spirit working in our midst can bind us together and make of us more than we could ever have been on our own. Rev. Lester Peter, the pastor who ordained me, said in his sermon on that occasion: “Peter, you will meet in your ministry the kindest, most selfless and generous people the world has ever known. You will also meet the orneriest, most stubborn and unforgiving people the world has ever known. And here is the hardest part-they will be the same people.” That has proven true. I have my share of scars from living in the church. But I have far more memories of witnessing acts of extraordinary generosity, hospitality, forgiveness, extraordinary courage and faithfulness in the many churches it has been my privilege to serve. There is no question that churches fall short of their calling. They can be selfish, petty and narrow minded. Even so, the Spirit of God is at work in their midst pushing them beyond themselves, working miracles within them and accomplishing great things through them.
Most of what I have to say about this passage I said in last week’s post. I do not believe it is possible to understand fully Jesus’ proclamation from the prophet Isaiah in the synagogue of Nazareth without reading what follows in this week’s lesson. I would only add that Jesus employs scripture here in precisely the way I believe preachers should. Recall that last week Jesus boldly proclaimed how Isaiah’s declaration of salvation for the poor, oppressed and blind was being fulfilled through his mission. In this week’s lesson, he appeals to two very well known stories in the Hebrew Scriptures to shed light upon Nazareth’s rejection of his mission. This is not the first time Israel has rejected a prophet sent to her. Elijah and Elisha both were persecuted by Israel’s royal establishment and lived part of their lives as fugitives. But their rejection, so far from thwarting their ministry, resulted in expanding the scope of their work beyond Israel’s borders. The widow who showed mercy on Elijah during his exile and Naaman the Syrian general who came to Elisha for healing experienced the salvation of Israel’s God. Consequently, God’s name was praised among the gentiles. So too, Nazareth’s rejection of Jesus will only further his mission and propel his saving acts further into the heart of Israel. In the same way, the persecution of the church in Jerusalem will spread the preaching of the gospel by the church into new territories. Acts 8:1-4.
THIRD SUNDAY AFTER EPIPHANY
PRAYER OF THE DAY: Blessed Lord God, you have caused the holy scriptures to be written for the nourishment of your people. Grant that we may hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them, that, comforted by your promises, we may embrace and forever hold fast to the hope of eternal life, through your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.
Our first lesson from Nehemiah takes us back to the beginning of the 5th Century and to the Water Gate at the north end of the newly reconstructed city of Jerusalem. Against all odds and under the able leadership of Nehemiah and Ezra, both the temple and the holy city were rebuilt from the rubble to which they had been reduced by the Babylonian invaders in 587 B.C.E. Now, almost a century later, the temple has been rebuilt and the walls of the city restored. As she has done so many times before, Israel gathers as a community to recommit herself to the covenant with her God. Ezra the scribe, prophet, preacher and priest, regarded in some Jewish traditions as a second Moses, mounts his pulpit to read from the Book of Torah, the Pentateuch, the Five Books of Moses. The people rise as Ezra opens up the book and he blesses them. Then the scribe reads the law to the people and the Levites “help the people understand the law.” Nehemiah 8:7.
Why would the people need an explanation of the law from the Levites? Perhaps for the same reason the church needs clergy. The temple cult had not been practiced for at least seventy years. Much of the Torah and its cultic practices presuppose the temple in Jerusalem and life in the promised land. To these returned exiles, who had lived most of their lives away from that land and without the temple, the ancient laws of Moses probably sounded about as foreign as the ways of Babylon seemed to the prior generation. Scholars also point out that the Hebrew language in which the Torah was written had long since been supplanted by Aramaic as the common tongue of the Jews. Consequently, it might have been necessary for the Levites to translate Ezra’s reading from Hebrew into Aramaic for the common people.
I think there might also be a third explanation. I offer it as a supplement rather than an alternative to either of the two above theories. It seems the people were caught up in a blue funk. Their return to the land of promise was not accompanied by the miraculous creation of a wooded highway through the desert promised by the prophet of Isaiah 40-55. Nor did the rebuilding of the temple usher in the messianic age of prosperity for Israel as the prophets Zechariah and Haggai had foretold. The new Jerusalem turned out not to be the capital of a restored Israelite kingdom rivaling the golden age of David and Solomon. It was merely the governmental seat for one of many regions occupied by the Persian Empire. The new temple was but a poor shadow of the one built under Solomon. Yet for all of that, Israel was still God’s people with whom God was abiding and through whom God was shining God’s light into the world. God was still with Israel and that should have been a source of joy. Such “joy of the Lord” at the very heart of the scriptures, says Ezra, is Israel’s strength. It is the “J” says our poet, Stuart Kestenbaum, that helps “us walk in a new way into this forest of language, where all the letters are beginning to speak, finding each other in just the right combination to be understood.” Perhaps the Levites were needed to help the people discover the ‘J” unlocking the ancient words of the covenant. Maybe their task was to remind the people that these words carried not merely judgment upon their unfaithfulness, but also joy in the certainty that, though Israel may have broken her end of the covenant, God remains ever faithful to God’s end.
While joy and lament might be at opposite ends of the emotional spectrum, they are not mutually exclusive. A good friend and colleague of mine once reminded me that one of the miraculous attributes of humanity is its capacity to experience both joy and profound sorrow at the same time. I see that at so many of the funerals I have done over the years. At nearly every wake you can find people sobbing uncontrollably one minute and laughing hysterically at some endearing story from the life of the departed loved one the next. In the midst of all that sorrow and grief, occasions for thanksgiving are found, friendships are renewed, wrongs forgiven and family bonds strengthened.
Joy and sorrow pop up side by side throughout the Bible. God rejoices in a good world filled with good creatures, yet is so sorrowful over human violence that God comes close to destroying it. Human beings labor under the curse of sin, but God continues to bless and promise. Jesus calls his disciples blessed even as he invites them to follow him in the way of the cross. Jesus was not afraid of suffering, but neither was he morbidly obsessed with it. For Jesus, suffering is simply the cost of joy found in living wholly for God and for neighbor. Discipleship does not promise us the shallow and illusive shadow this world calls “happiness,” an ephemeral condition that depends entirely on one’s changeable outward circumstances. Joy runs far deeper than that. To be joyful is to know that the way of Jesus is the grain of the universe, the future of humanity and the life we will someday share under the gentle reign of God. Joy is found in knowing that God is at work forming in us the mind of Christ. Joy is finally what draws people to the reign of God. Every vibrant, healthy church I have ever encountered (and I have encountered many) is a place of joy, a place where the “J” of the biblical narrative rises up front and center. It is a community of faith where the Bible is rightly interpreted as God’s joyful good news that all things are being reconciled in Christ Jesus. Truly, this joy of the Lord is our strength.
Here is poet Stuart Kestenbaum’s prayer for joy.
Prayer for Joy
What was it we wanted
to say anyhow, like today
when there were all the letters
in my alphabet soup and suddenly
the ‘j’ rises to the surface.
The ‘j’, a letter that might be
great for Scrabble, but not really
used for much else, unless
we need to jump for joy,
and then all of a sudden
it’s there and ready to
help us soar and to open up
our hearts at the same time,
this simple line with a curved bottom,
an upside down cane that helps
us walk in a new way into this
forest of language, where all the letters
are beginning to speak,
finding each other in just
the right combination
to be understood.
c. 2014 by Stuart Kestenbaum. Source: Only Now,(Deerbrook Editions, 2014). In addition to the above mentioned work, Stuart Kestenbaum is the author of Prayers & Run-on Sentences (Deerbook Editions, 2007). He also served as director of the Haystack Mountain School of Crafts on Deer Isle, Maine for twenty-seven years. More of his poems can be found on the Poetry Foundation Webiste.
Nehemiah 8:1-3, 5-6, 8-10
The book of Nehemiah and the book of Ezra (which precedes Nehemiah) are actually one book in the Hebrew Bible. Together they constitute our major source of information about the period following the return of the Jews from exile in Babylon. Talmon, Shemaryahu, “Ezra and Nehemiah,” The Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, Supplementary Vol. (c. 1976 by Abingdon) p. 317. Together these books testify to the resurrection of Judaism for which the backdrop is narrated in First and Second Chronicles. The chronologies in all four books serve to establish the historical ties between Solomon’s temple cult and the rebuilt post exilic temple.
While Ezra, a renowned scribe, is credited with organizing the rebuilding of the temple, Nehemiah, a Jewish governor appointed by the Persian royal court, was chiefly responsible for rebuilding the ruined city of Jerusalem. Together these books tell the inspiring story of a broken people struggling to rebuild their community and live obediently under the covenant with their God in drastically changed circumstances. Our lesson comes at the completion of the wall around Jerusalem and the settlement of the exiles therein. Ezra the scribe calls the people together for a reading of the “law of Moses.” Vs. 1. Though it is probable that the first five books of the Hebrew Scriptures or “Pentateuch” is referenced here, it is not at all clear that the version Ezra/Nehemiah was working with is the same one we have today. Citations found later in chapter 8 do not appear in any of the five books we know as the Pentateuch.
The peoples’ response to this lengthy reading is lamentation and weeping.vs.9. It is hard to know exactly what was on their mind, but we know that Nehemiah himself wept bitterly at the beginning of the section of this book bearing his name. Nehemiah 1:4. He was weeping over the ruination of Jerusalem and the plight of the returning exiles eeking out an existence in that ravished land. Nehemiah 1:1-3. He recognized, too, that this sorry state was in no small part the consequences of Israel’s sins against her covenant with her God. See Nehemiah 1:4-11. Perhaps the people were weeping for some of the same reasons. They had experienced the ruin of their great nation and it was clear that neither the rebuilt temple nor the reassembled community would rise to the level of Israelite greatness known under the kings of David’s royal line. At first blush, it appears that the best the exiles can hope for is a diminished future as a subject province in the Persian Empire.
Lament is that space between what is and what ought to be-so says Rev. Stephen P. Bouman, former pastor of this congregation and prominent leader in our church. I agree, but must add that sometimes our laments run amok because we don’t always know so well “what ought to be.” As you know, I see a lot of parallels between the post-exilic Jews trying to rebuild their community and the mainline protestant churches (ELCA being one of these) trying to adjust to a post-Christian era. We spend a lot of time mourning all that we have lost. That is not necessarily inappropriate because we have lost a lot that was precious. I am old enough to remember a time when nearly all my friends went to church somewhere. I remember when even small churches like the ones in which I grew up had a youth group numbering between twenty and thirty kids. I have distinct memories of our Sunday School Christmas pageant that involved intense rehearsals of the nativity play conducted each year with near military precision. Growing up in a Christian community with a strong sense of the importance of church, discipleship and witness formed me into the person I am today.
My own children did not come of age in quite the same intense cultural atmosphere of commitment to and involvement in church life. My daughter once remarked to me after a semester of college how “weird” it seemed to everyone she knew that our family went to church every Sunday. Worship is no longer deemed an essential component of the week. It is now an optional activity that some folks practice occasionally and only “weird” people do consistently. My grandchildren will likely grow up in a culture where worship on Sunday is altogether odd. That saddens me.
But lament does not lead to healing if its focus remains solely what has been lost. Nehemiah recognizes that Israel’s past, though glorious in retrospect, was not always characterized by faithfulness to God. Wealth and prosperity bred corruption, idolatry and oppression of the poor. Forgetting that she was once an enslaved people oppressed by the Empire of Egypt, Israel became something of an empire in her own right dominating surrounding nations and even enslaving and impoverishing her own people. The extensive network of statutes in the laws of Moses protecting the poor, the widow and the orphan were largely forgotten. The lure of wealth drew Israel’s ruling class to commercial treaties and military alliances with foreign nations whose false gods and false values soon displaced God’s passion for justice. Perhaps the good old days were not quite so good in God’s eyes.
I think we need to bring Nehemiah’s spirit of searching inquiry to our own laments over the state of our churches. The days of protestant denominational growth surely look like good times to us. Churches were full; financial support was seldom lacking and the Sunday School rooms were packed like subway cars during rush hour. What was not to like? But I am not so sure that these good years were quite so good in God’s eyes. The church in which I was baptized sat on a street with at least a dozen other churches within a half mile of each other (one of which was another Lutheran congregation). I never set foot in any of them and I doubt their members often passed our threshold either. We didn’t need them. Neither did we see any need to express unity in the Body of Christ. We were cocky and confident that our Lutheran brand of Christian faith (actually, our particular flavor of the Lutheran brand) was the best if not the only doctrinally correct form of church. We didn’t want to dilute our doctrinal purity by getting too close to our theologically confused neighbors. We gladly supported missionaries to Africa, but no one would ever have dreamed of extending a worship invitation to the African Americans in the neighborhood just north of us. “They have their own churches,” I remember people saying. It didn’t bother us that our church was just as segregated as the rest of the country in those days. In fact, segregation in general didn’t bother us much. I think God had at least as many reasons for cutting us down to size as for sending Israel into exile.
So maybe we need to expand our understanding of lament to include “that place between where we wish we were and where God needs for us to be.” Through the pain of conquest and exile, Israel learned that faithfulness, not greatness is what God desires. Is God trying to teach the church a similar lesson? Have we learned yet to lament properly? If our sorrow is only yearning for the past, then we have not learned anything. If our quest for change and renewal is nothing more than gimmicky strategies to increase sufficient membership and revenues to keep the ELCA machinery and its institutions running, then our lament has not yet matured into genuine repentance and openness to God’s future. As much “change, transformation and renewal” language as I hear coming down from denominational leadership, a lot of it seems to focus on saving the institution rather than transforming our vision. Much of what passes for “mission strategies” looks to me like the same failed marketing strategies that consultants have been peddling to the business community for decades. (It has been said many times that a consultant is the last straw grasped by a company with one foot in bankruptcy court and the other on a banana peel.)
I could be wrong, but I have a feeling that God is not looking for a powerful church exercising political muscle in the halls of Congress, capturing the attention of the media with its liturgical pomp & circumstance and running dozens of agencies doing every conceivable sort of good. As wonderful as our denominational agencies are and as much good as they do, maybe God does not need them. Rather than an expression of faithful obedience to God’s call, perhaps our desperate efforts to preserve our structures speak more to our own need to prove to ourselves that we are, after all, important. Maybe God needs a church so poor that it has nothing but the Word to depend on. Perhaps a small, broken and scattered church made up of the weak, the foolish, the low and the despised is a more faithful witness to Jesus than the larger, stronger and influential church we are trying so hard to preserve. But that’s just me and St. Paul. What do we know?
In any event, there is a good word for us here whenever we are ready to hear it. God is not done with us. God has a future for the church of Jesus. It might not be the future we envision or the one we would choose if we could choose. But because God is good, we can be sure that it is the best future for us-and the world to which we have been called to bear witness.
This wisdom psalm is a favorite of mine. Many commentators suggest that it is actually two psalms, verses 1-6 being a hymn praising God’s glory revealed in nature and verses 7-14 being a prayer which, like the lengthy Psalm 119, praises God’s law. Anderson, Bernhard W., Out of the Depths: The Psalms Speak for us Today, (c. 1983 by Bernhard, W. Anderson, pub. by The Westminster Press) pp. 145-148. I am not convinced that we are dealing with two psalms here. Both sections praise God’s glory, the first as it is revealed in the created universe and the second as it is revealed to the human heart in God’s laws. Quite possibly, the psalmist did make use of two different poetic fragments to construct this poem. Nevertheless, I believe that a single author skillfully brought these two strands together weaving them into a single theme of praise for God’s glory. So also J.W. Rogerson and J.W. McKay, Psalms 1-50, The Cambridge Bible Commentary (c. 1977 by Cambridge University Press) p. 86.
We need to exercise care here in our understanding of the words translated from Hebrew as “law” and “precept.” Law or “Torah” is more than a collection of rules and regulations. For Israel, Torah is the shape Israel’s life is intended to take under covenant with the Lord her God. Torah is not an end in itself, but the invitation to a collection of practices that train the heart to perceive God’s voice. Mechanical obedience is not enough to “keep back thy servant from presumptuous sins.” Vs. 13. The psalmist must pray for God to “Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in thy sight.” Vs. 14. The scriptures are not an end in themselves. They were given so that through them we might be drawn into a closer relationship with our God.
Paul is continuing a discussion he started at the beginning of this chapter last week. (See post for Sunday, January 17, 2016). To this congregation filled with persons insisting that their own gifts or offices in the church confer upon them a superior status, Paul points out how ludicrous their bickering really is. As I pointed out last week, Paul’s reference to the church as the Body of Christ is not a metaphor. The church really is Christ’s resurrected Body of which we are all members. That being the case, it will not do for the various members of the Body to seek either control or autonomy. Disembodied eyes, ears or hands would be useless for any purpose even if they could survive apart from the rest of the body. The health of the body, and therefore the health of each of its members, requires that all bodily parts function harmoniously in the service of the whole body.
Now you might argue that no church you have ever seen actually functions like a body. You would probably be correct. Certainly the church in Corinth was a long way from anything like a body. Nevertheless, Paul says in verse 27, “Now you are the Body of Christ.” That is because God did not merely take on flesh, but “sinful flesh.” It is God’s intent to indwell less than perfect communities like the congregation in Corinth and like the church at 167 Palisade Avenue where I serve. We are the workshop of the Holy Spirit. God is in our midst shaping us into the kind of people who one day will live as members of a single body. God does that by placing us into communities of people who hurt our feelings, break their promises and disappoint us. How else will we ever learn to forgive as we have been forgiven? How else will we ever learn to preach and to practice reconciliation? The church is not the place you go to get away from it all. If you want to be coddled and pampered, go to the spa. If you want to be sanctified and made holy, go to church.
According to commentator I. Howard Marshall, this passage is the oldest known account of a synagogue service. Based on ancient documentation preserved from other sources, we have a basic idea of how such worship services were conducted. See Commentary on Luke, I. Howard Marshall (Paternoster Press, Ltd., c. 1978), p. 181. Typically, such services began with public confession of the Shema (“Hear O Israel, the Lord your God. The Lord is one.” Deuteronomy 6:4-9). Thereafter came a series of prayers followed by the readings of scripture. A passage from the Pentateuch (first five books of the Bible) was read by several members of the congregation in turn. There was a lesson from the prophets followed by yet another prayer. Next came the sermon if there was someone in the synagogue competent to give one. The service then closed with prayer. It is not known exactly how universal this format was in Jesus day, much less whether it was used at the particular service described in our lesson. But it could explain why the scroll of the book of Isaiah was handed to Jesus. Moreover, given that Jesus had already gained a reputation as a teacher in other parts, it would not be unusual for some to accept him as a teacher in the synagogue at Nazareth. Equally as well, it would not be unusual for others to question his credentials in view of his evident lack of formal rabbinic training.
The scripture Jesus read in the synagogue is from “Third Isaiah.” See post from Epiphany of our Lord, January 3, 2013. This prophet addressed the exiles returning from Babylon to their homeland in Palestine as they struggled to rebuild their community. This community was indeed poor, captive and blind to any hope for its future. The prophet announces that God has anointed him/her to bring the good news of liberation to these people. Bear in mind that this is a community that has already experienced the failure of a previous prophet’s vision of a glorious return from exile on a garden like pathway through the desert. If they were skeptical of yet another prophet proclaiming yet another such liberation, you can imagine how the congregation at Nazareth some five centuries later must have reacted when Jesus told them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” Some folks must have groaned, “Oh pleeease! Not again!” Others evidently were sufficiently impressed with Jesus to give him a hearing. But everything seems to go south when Jesus makes the point that it was also to gentiles, not just good Jewish folk, that the prophets Elijah and Elisha touched with healing hands. The hostile reaction of the crowd to this message prefigures both Jesus’ rejection by the Jewish leaders in Jerusalem and the rejection of the church’s preaching in many (but not all) synagogues throughout the Roman Empire seen in Luke’s sequel, the Book of Acts.
The remarkable thing about this passage is Jesus’ reading of the scripture from Isaiah. He tells his audience not that the scripture will soon be fulfilled, as did the prophet who uttered it, but that it has been fulfilled. The reign of God has begun with the anointing of Jesus for his mission. The opposition to this message, however, is a clear indicator that this new reign of God takes the shape of the cross in a world bound and determined to reject it.
SECOND SUNDAY AFTER EPIPHANY
Prayer of the Day: Lord God, source of every blessing, you showed forth your glory and led many to faith by the works of your Son, who brought gladness and salvation to his people. Transform us by the Spirit of his love, that we may find our life together in him, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.
There is plenty to ponder in John’s marvelous story about Jesus and the wedding feast at Cana. Some of that is discussed below. But what strikes me more than anything else about this tale is its sheer abundance. John tells us that the six stone jars the servants filled with water, ultimately becoming wine, contained between twenty and thirty gallons. So we are talking between 120 and 180 gallons of wine. And this is not Gallo or Manischewitz. Think Richebourg Grand Cru. I cannot imagine a small Galilean wedding party making a dent in such a huge reservoir of wine.
Jesus seems to be all about abundance in John’s gospel. Where the wine seems to have run out, Jesus comes through with an abundance of wine that is better than the best. Jesus feeds five thousand people in the wilderness with just a few loaves-and there are leftovers. He promises the woman of Samaria enough water to last for all eternity. He offers abundant life. His own life is so full of life-giving wonders that the world itself could never contain the books it would take to tell of them all. The blessed “generosity of numbers” celebrated in Mary Cornish’s poetry is not lost on John the Evangelist.
The gospel of God’s unlimited generosity stands in stark contrast to the constant moaning we hear in the public square these days about the urgent need to eliminate deficits, practice austerity and exercise fiscal restraint. Now I am not opposed to any of that in principle. There is no virtue in waste or extravagance. We would all do well to reign in our insatiable consumer appetites. But it seems to me that the call for fiscal restraint is often issued to those who have the least to restrain. Austerity is more often imposed than practiced in our society and the burden of reducing deficits is usually placed on the backs of those least able to bear it. In this age of unprecedented wealth, we somehow cannot afford to pay a living wage to the people who prepare and serve food for those of us who can afford the luxury of dinning out. Much of the anti-immigrant rhetoric we are hearing these days seems rooted in a fear that there is not enough to be had in this country for everyone as it is. The life boat is already full. In this zero sum game, anybody else’s gain is necessarily my loss. The pie is shrinking. Admitting more to the table will only hasten its inevitable disappearance.
By contrast, Jesus promises abundance for all. The specter of scarcity driving so much of our politics, poisoning our relationships with our neighbors and killing our capacity for compassion has no place in God’s reign of abundance. God’s table is never bare, nor is it lacking in space for any who come hungry and thirsty. Disciples of Jesus know that generosity looks not to the limits of our own resources, but to the limitless promises of God to provide all that we need and so much more. The disciples saw more in the miracle at Cana than a magic trick. They recognized the dawn of the messianic age; the in-breaking of abundant and eternal life. They got “a foretaste of the feast to come” where the best wine just keeps on flowing.
Here’s the poem by Mary Cornish I alluded to above.
I like the generosity of numbers.
The way, for example,
they are willing to count
anything or anyone:
two pickles, one door to the room,
eight dancers dressed as swans.
I like the domesticity of addition—
add two cups of milk and stir—
the sense of plenty: six plums
on the ground, three more
falling from the tree.
And multiplication’s school
of fish times fish,
whose silver bodies breed
beneath the shadow
of a boat.
Even subtraction is never loss,
just addition somewhere else:
five sparrows take away two,
the two in someone else’s
There’s an amplitude to long division,
as it opens Chinese take-out
box by paper box,
inside every folded cookie
a new fortune.
And I never fail to be surprised
by the gift of an odd remainder,
footloose at the end:
forty-seven divided by eleven equals four,
with three remaining.
Three boys beyond their mother’s call,
two Italians off to the sea,
one sock that isn’t anywhere you look.
Source: Red Studio, (c. 2007 by Mary Cornish). Mary Cornish is a former Wallace Stegner Fellow. She lives in Bellingham, Washington, where she teaches creative writing at Western Washington University. In addition to her poetry, Cornish has written and illustrated a number of children’s books. I encourage you to read more about Cornish and her work at the website for the Poetry Foundation.
This reading comes to us from the third section of the book of Isaiah. (For a more thorough background on the Book of Isaiah generally, see my post for Sunday, January 3rd, Epiphany of our Lord; See also the article of Professor Fred Gaiser of Luther Seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota at enterthebible.org. The prophet is speaking to the dispirited band of Jews who answered the call to return from their exile in Babylon and rebuild the ruined city of Jerusalem and its temple. These returning exiles no doubt left Babylon in high hopes of accomplishing their task of reconstruction in short order. The land to which they returned, however, was inhabited by peoples who now considered it their home and did not desire to see Jerusalem rebuilt. The odds of these returning settlers achieving their grand plans were long at best. Decades after the Jews began to return to Palestine, the city of Jerusalem was still in ruins and rebuilding of the temple had been abandoned even before the foundation had been completed.
So you can see why the prophet’s grand vision of Jerusalem as “a crown of beauty in the hand of the Lord and a royal diadem in the hand of your God” hardly comported with the reality experienced by his or her audience. Of course I do not know how this prophet was received, but I suspect that this preaching might have generated some hostility. After all, it was another prophet, the second Isaiah, whose preaching motivated these people to leave what was now their home in Babylon and return to Palestine, a land that most of them knew only from the stories of their elders. The miraculous “highway through the wilderness” promised by second Isaiah did not materialize. The reconstruction of Jerusalem and the temple proved enormously more difficult and complex than they had expected. They had exchanged the relative security of their Babylonian community in exile for an environment of hardship, danger and disappointment. That is what comes of listening to prophets.
In many respects, this is the life of prophets in every age. These are people of vision speaking of realities that do not yet appear. Sometimes, like Jeremiah, the prophet must speak hard and fearful truths that people do not want to see. Other times the prophet is called upon to speak words of promise to a people whose hopes have been crushed to many times to trust words of comfort and glad tidings. Obviously, our prophet fits into the latter category. He or she is preaching to a people who have forgotten how to hope and who no longer believe that they have a future.
Were the words of this prophet fulfilled? In some respects, we have to say yes. The fact that Jerusalem and the temple were rebuilt is testimony to the effectiveness of the prophet’s ministry. But in another sense, the prophecy remains unfulfilled. The temple that was rebuilt under Ezra and Nehemiah did not match the splendor of Solomon’s temple which it was meant to replace. Ezra 3:10-13. Jerusalem remains to this day, not the center of peace and justice for which the prophet hoped, but a flashpoint for conflict and violence. So we might be tempted to say that the prophet’s critics were right and that his or her visions were merely pipe dreams. But, as my grandfather would have said, “Day’s not over yet.” John of Patmos reminds us that the new Jerusalem where God will dwell among human beings is yet to come. Revelation 21:1-22:5. Moreover, as I said in my post for Sunday, January 3rd Epiphany of our Lord, God may yet have a saving and redeeming role for the brick and mortar Jerusalem that stands in Palestine today.
This psalm of trust has been the victim of censorship by the lectionary police. Therefore, I am giving you the whole psalm to read so that you can appreciate what is really going on here. The psalm begins with a graphic description of evil people who, confident that they need not fear any consequences of their evil behavior, boldly concoct ever more mischief. Perhaps the folks who gave us the lectionary felt that we should not dwell upon evil people and the harm they do, but rather focus on the faithfulness of God that is extolled throughout verses 5-10. “Accentuate the positive” as the song goes. But in so doing, I think we lose the thrust of what the psalmist is telling us.
Let’s begin with the obvious. There are wicked people in the world. I am not talking about people who make snide remarks about your potato salad at the church supper or your neighbor who lets her dog do his business at the edge of your yard and doesn’t bother to clean it up. These folks are thoughtless and rude, but not evil. I am talking Osama Bin Laden evil here. I am talking about the one who “in his bed plots how best to do mischief-” (see vs. 4) like shooting down school children with semi-automatic rifles. How does one deal with evil like that?
According to NRA Executive Vice President Wayne LaPierre, “The only way to stop a bad guy with a gun is with a good guy with a gun.” Well, the psalmist does not agree. “You [God] save humans and animals alike.” “All people take refuge in the shadow of your wings…for with you is the fountain of life.” The psalmist makes it clear that God’s “righteousness is like the mighty mountains” and God’s “judgments are like the great deep.” It is not for human beings to take judgment into their own hands and determine who must be punished, who must live and who must die. The “good guys” according to this psalm are those who do not carry weapons or trust in them but rely wholly upon God. That is why the prayer concludes with verses 11-12 (also conveniently omitted) in which the psalmist asks for God’s protection against the wicked.
Once again, this prayer strikes a dissonant chord in our culture of violence that has been indoctrinated by westerns and police dramas in which the underlying message is exactly that of Mr. LaPierre: the only way to stop violence is with more violence; the answer to gun violence in our schools is more guns in school, etc. The church’s story is altogether different. Our hero is the man who warns us that all who take the sword (good guys and bad guys alike) perish by the sword. Our role model is the man who refused to retaliate or exercise the right of self defense when confronted with deadly force. This is why, once again, I recommend two psalms each day just like vitamins, one in the morning and one at night. They help to immunize us against cultural programming and form in us the mind of Christ.
The church at Corinth was a congregation only the Apostle Paul could love. It had every conceivable problem a church could have. It had divisive factions; power struggles; sex scandals; doctrinal disputes; arguments over worship practices; and, of course, money issues. Yet remarkably, Paul can say to this messed up, dysfunctional congregation, “Now you are the Body of Christ.” I Corinthians 12:27. He does not say, “You should be the Body of Christ!” or “You could be the Body of Christ if you would just get your act together!” No, Paul is emphatic that the church at Corinth is the Body of Christ even now, with all its warts and blemishes. This is no metaphor. Paul means for the church to understand that it is Jesus’ resurrected Body. Nothing Paul says makes any sense until you get that.
In this Sunday’s lesson the issue is spiritual gifts. First off, understand that Paul is not using the term “spiritual” in the wishy washy new age sense that we so often hear it today-i.e., “I’m spiritual, but not religious.” (Whatever that means.) When Paul speaks of the spiritual, he is speaking explicitly about the Spirit of Jesus. That Spirit can be experienced only through the intimate knowing of Jesus. Jesus is known through communion with his Body, the church. Thus, it is impossible to speak of obedience to Jesus apart from communion with his Body. The church is the Body of Jesus precisely because it is animated by the Spirit of Jesus. Therefore, every ethical decision, every doctrinal teaching, every matter of church administration, every aspect of worship boils down to what does or does not build up the unity and health of Christ’s Body.
So now we come down to the specific issue at hand: “spiritual gifts” or gifts given to individual members of the Body of Christ for the building up of that Body. There is no hierarchy in the church for Paul. The issue is never “who is in charge.” Jesus is the Head of the church. He alone is in charge. The rest of us are all members of the Body. A little finger might not seem to be particularly important-until it gets slammed in the car door. Suddenly, the least important part of the body is commanding center stage! So also in the Body of Christ, the prominence of any person’s gift at any particular time depends upon what is happening. When determining the short term management of a large monetary gift to the church, someone with administrative skill in managing funds is critical. Such persons know how to transfer property quickly, efficiently and without loss to a place where it can appreciate in value as the church decides how to use it. However, when it comes to long range management of these funds, different gifts are required. The mission of the church is not to maximize income on its investments, but to use its resources to build up the Body of Christ and witness to the reign of God. To make faithful use of the church’s resources to these ends, the gift of prophetic vision is required. The gift of discernment is necessary also to evaluate such visions and find within them the call and command of Jesus. When all members of the church work together using their unique gifts to build up the Body of Christ, the gifts complement each other.
Unfortunately, such harmony was not the prevailing mood at Corinth. Certain individuals were convinced that their gifts conferred upon them greater status and authority. They were using their gifts and abilities to advance their own interests instead of building up the church. So Paul begins in these verses an extended discussion about the proper use of the gifts the Holy Spirit gives to each of member of the Body of Christ. In the first place, all members of the Body are gifted and their gifts are necessary to the proper functioning of that Body. So the church must constantly ask itself whether it is recognizing the gifts among its members. Second, it matters not which gift a person has, but how the gift is used. Paul makes it clear that all gifts must be used for the common good of the whole church. In the example of the monetary gift, a short term manager who loses sight of the big picture and is concerned only with maximizing returns on investment rather than growing the ministry of the church is no longer serving the Body. So also the visionary with great plans for the church’s resources who is unwilling to submit his or her vision to the ministry of discernment within the Body is no longer building up the Body. Third, there is no hierarchy of gifts. Hierarchy is antithetical to the well-being of the church.
This makes for a delightful story, simple in the telling yet layered and textured. Jesus and his family are invited to a wedding feast. This is no small thing. A wedding is about the closest thing to a holiday little Galilean towns ever know. One of the town’s few animals will be slaughtered and roasted. Wine will be served in abundance. For once everyone will eat and drink freely-as though they were wealthy. There will be singing, dancing and joy. Weddings provide an island of sheer jubilation in this ocean of back-breaking work, grinding poverty and ever-present hunger that the common people of Galilee know as life. Small wonder, then, that Jesus frequently used the image of the wedding feast to describe the reign of God. It is a time when sorrows are forgotten; tears wiped away; food, wine and dancing can be had in abundance. Wedding feasts are a sign of what God intends for human life. A wedding is a defiant “no” to what is and a yearning expression of hope for what might be. So I believe that Jesus’ quiet miracle for the preservation of a wedding feast is a more profound sign than might first appear.
Jesus’ mother (John never refers to her as Mary) calls to Jesus’ attention the situation with the wine. “What is that to us?” Jesus responds. That strikes me as a reasonable response. This is not their wedding and, as far as we know, Jesus and his mother had no part in planning it. Let the family of the bride worry about the state of the wine. Jesus’ mother does not argue the point. She simply instructs the servants with whom she has been conversing to follow Jesus’ directions. Mom seems determined to get her son involved, seemingly confident that he can be of assistance. I would very much like to know what was in Mary’s mind. What was she expecting of Jesus? A miracle? This would seem unlikely. As far as we know from John’s perspective, Jesus has never before performed any miracles. Nevertheless, Mary feels that it is important for Jesus know that the wine has run short and she seems certain that he will be able to do something about it.
The stone jars for use in purification were, in all likelihood, provided for the benefit of the guests containing water “intended to make the participating guests worthy by ritual lustration, to share in the solemnities of the marriage feast.” Marsh, John, Saint John, The Pelican New Testament Commentaries (c. 1968 by John Marsh, pub. by Penguin Books, Ltd.) p. 145. As the feast was already underway, the water in the jars had been used up so that the jars were now empty. Marsh goes on to suggest that the number six (one less than the perfect number of seven) suggests the inadequacy of Judaism’s religious practices. Professor Raymond Brown, however, finds this reading somewhat far-fetched and I tend to agree with him. Brown, Raymond E., The Gospel of John I-XII, The Anchor Bible, Vol, 29 (c. 1966 by Doubleday) p. 100. That they were designated for purification, however, emphasizes the life giving potency of the sign for all who see it and believe. Moreover, the Hebrew Scriptures frequently speak of the messianic kingdom as a place where wine flows freely and abundantly. See, e.g., Amos 9:13-14; Hosea 14:7; Jeremiah 31:12.
The primary focus, however, should be on what John tells us about the purpose and effect of this miracle, namely, that through this act Jesus’ glory was revealed and his disciples believed in him. Apparently, this miracle was not for public consumption. Nobody, save Jesus and the servants on duty at the wedding, knew how there suddenly came to be such an abundance of such very fine wine. From all I can tell, neither the wedding planner nor the newly married couple was aware that the celebration was in jeopardy or that Jesus had saved it. The disciples knew, however, and that seems to be the whole point. Jesus would have his disciples know that he has come to make sure the wedding feast of the Lamb continues. So also should every joyous wedding feast that is a “foretaste of the feast to come.” No wedding feast will die of privation on Jesus’ watch.
THE BAPTISM OF OUR LORD
Prayer of the Day: Almighty God, you anointed Jesus at his baptism with the Holy Spirit and revealed him as your beloved Son. Keep all who are born of water and the Spirit faithful in your service, that we may rejoice to be called children of God, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.
“This is my son.” I have used those words more than a few times over the last two and one half decades, always with a deep sense of pride and joy. But now I cannot speak or hear them without feeling also an undertow of sadness. That is because I remember so well my own son’s deeply felt pride and joy in introducing to me to his son, my grandson, Parker. Twenty-four hours later my wife and I were holding my son as together we grieved Parker’s untimely death in the neonatal ICU. In so short a time, one life brought such outbursts of joy and such a tidal wave of grief. Two fathers, one mourning the loss of a son, the other powerless to comfort a son experiencing the most horrible thing that can happen to a parent. This is my son.
I cannot help but wonder if there is not a similar underlying sadness in the declaration of God the Father: “Thou art my beloved Son.” John tells us that God desires to share with us the same love that has existed eternally between the Father and the Son. How else can God love us other than to become human flesh? How else can the Word of God embrace and comfort us when all spoken words fail? And what shape other then the cross can such love possibly take in a world driven by unbelief, fear and hatred? The cross is the terrible cost of the Incarnation; the cost of Trinitarian Love born into a sinful world. This is my Son.
“A child is something else again,” as poet Yehuda Amichai tells us. We have no idea of all we let ourselves in for when we decide to have children. Still less can we predict the ripple effect that child’s life will have on the rest of the world. “A child is a missile into the coming generations,” Amichai says. She or he is our contribution to the ongoing saga of creation. We cannot foresee the joy or sorrow our children will bring with them into the world or experience themselves. Yet we know this much: our children will one day know death-that of their loved ones and their own. Their hearts will be broken, their bodies grow fail and their minds will become dim.
Into just such an existence God births the Son. And because the Son is God’s Son-the One whose innermost being is love, the Lamb of God incapable of violence, cruelty or cunning-he is particularly vulnerable to those most vicious characteristics of our world. The only question is whether the Son will continue to be the Son despite all that the world is about to inflict on him. The New Testament answers that question with a resounding “yes.” Jesus is God’s arrow of love shot into the world. That Trinitarian love proves stronger than the powers of evil even as they employ their heaviest weapons against it. Jesus lived, suffered and died cruelly in this world, but went on loving. He would not be sucked into the vortex of retribution that imprisons us. That is the “weakness of God” Paul recognizes as God’s greatest strength. It costs God dearly to hold all things together in Christ against the divisive forces threatening to rip creation apart. Our assurance is that God will never lose God’s grip. If the crucifixion of God’s beloved Son cannot cool the heat of God’s passionate, Trinitarian love for us, nothing can. Still today God the Father raises up to us his bloodied and wounded child saying to us, “This is my Son.”
Here is the poem by Yehuda Amichai I cited above.
A Child is Something Else Again
A child is something else again. Wakes up
in the afternoon and in an instant he’s full of words,
in an instant he’s humming, in an instant warm,
instant light, instant darkness.
A child is Job. They’ve already placed their bets on him
but he doesn’t know it. He scratches his body
for pleasure. Nothing hurts yet.
They’re training him to be a polite Job,
to say “Thank you” when the Lord has given,
to say “You’re welcome” when the Lord has taken away.
A child is vengeance.
A child is a missile into the coming generations.
I launched him: I’m still trembling.
A child is something else again: on a rainy spring day
glimpsing the Garden of Eden through the fence,
kissing him in his sleep,
hearing footsteps in the wet pine needles.
A child delivers you from death.
Child, Garden, Rain, Fate.
Yehuda Amichai, “A Child Is Something Else Again” from The Poetry of Yehuda Amichai. (c. 2015 by Yehuda Amichai, Translated By Chana Bloch and published by Farrar, Strauss & Giroux). Yehuda Amichai is one of Israel’s most prominent poets. He was born in Germany in 1924 but left with his family for Palestine in 1935. He fought in the 1948 Arab/Israeli war. His poems have been translated into English, French, German and Swedish. You can read more about Amichai and his poetry on the Poetry Foundation Website.
For a more thorough discussion of the Book of the Prophet Isaiah and the place of this reading within it, I refer you back to my post for the Epiphany of Our Lord, Sunday, January 3, 2016. Suffice to say that this Sunday’s lesson comes from Chapters 40-56 of Isaiah, which 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 in Babylon to their homeland in Palestine.
The cry “fear not” (Vs. 1) is a refrain heard throughout this section of Isaiah as it is also sounded throughout the Gospel of Luke. In contrast to the prophets of the 8th and 9th Centuries whose prophesies were more often than not declarations of judgment evoking fear, the glad tidings of release from exile and return to the land of promise banish fear and inspire hope. The term “redeemed” (Vs. 1) is a technical/legal term pertaining to ancient family law. It refers to the payment made to a third party releasing a relative from slavery or imprisonment for debt. Westermann, Claus, Isaiah 40-66, The Old Testament Library (c. 1969 SCM Press, Ltd.) p. 116. The promise to deliver Israel through waters and through rivers unmistakably evokes the Exodus miracle at the Red Sea and the crossing of the Jordan into Canaan under Joshua. Vs. 2.
“Because you are precious in my eyes, and honored, and I love you, I give men for you, peoples in exchange for your life.” Vs. 4. Of this verse Westermann goes on to say, “here we also have one of the most beautiful and profound statements of what the Bible means by ‘election.’ A tiny, miserable and insignificant band of uprooted men and women are assured that they-precisely they-are the people to whom God has turned in love; they, just as they are, are dear and precious in his sight.” Ibid. 118. The distinction here is not between Israelites and members of other nations as people, but rather between the glorious status of the reigning empires to whom this God prefers a band of exiles. This is, of course, consistent with the prophets’ and the psalmists’ insistence that God is particularly concerned with the widow, the orphan and the poor.
I have a fondness for these verses. As a matter of fact, this lesson was one of the readings for Sesle’s and my marriage service. I cannot remember what my thought process was in making this choice. In retrospect, however, I can attest that God has indeed been with us through some pretty rough waters and has gotten us out of some fiery predicaments over the years. Perhaps I was thinking that a marriage is a very fragile thing. It needs a lot of help to become strong, to remain healthy and to survive. I expect that the Babylonian exiles were probably feeling pretty fragile also. Having lost the land they called home, the temple that was the symbol of God’s presence in their midst and the line of David that gave them a national identity, they were now living in the land of their conquerors as a community of foreigners. I expect that they were struggling to pass on their identity to a new generation of Jews who knew nothing first hand of Israel’s past glory and saw only the social and economic benefits of blending into the surrounding culture. Little by little their language was becoming a relic used only in worship. The prophet’s call for these defeated and demoralized exiles to make the long and dangerous journey back to a ruined land was a daunting challenge laden with risks and uncertainties. The odds against the returning exiles were even more formidable than those facing a marriage.
But the people of God do not make their decisions on the basis of statistical probabilities. They live their lives in the light of God’s promises. That is why we enter into marriage with promises to remain faithful until death parts us-knowing full well the statistics on divorce and separation. That is why I baptize infants of parents who promise to bring their children to the house of God, teach them the Lord’s Prayer and the Ten Commandments-even when I am fairly confident that they intend to do no such thing. It is God’s faithfulness to God’s promises that make the difference-not our own faithfulness which is fickle at best. So with each baptism I pray that the infant will pass through the baptismal flood to a new creation; be purified, but not consumed by the fire of God’s Spirit and be brought at last into the Sabbath rest of all people called by God’s name. I continue to stay in touch with these families-sometimes to the extent of making a pest of myself-in order to keep alive their tenuous connection to the family of God. I do that because I believe that when God adopts someone and says to them, “You are my beloved,” God means it. So I strive to keep the door open as far as possible.
Many commentators suggest that this psalm is an Israelite poet’s adaptation of an ancient Phoenician hymn praising Baal-Hadad, the Canaanite storm god. Weiser, Artur, The Psalms, The Old Testament Library (c. 1962 by SCM Press, Ltd.) p. 261; Brueggemann, Walter, The Message of the Psalm, Augsburg Old Testament Studies (c. 1984 by Augsburg Publishing House) p. 143. Other commentators have maintained that the psalm is a liturgical recital of God’s appearance to Israel on Mt. Sinai. Both views might be correct. Israel frequently borrowed liturgical and literary material from its neighbors in shaping its own worship traditions. Thus, a hymn originally praising the storm god in the wake of a particularly fierce weather event might have served as a template for this psalm memorializing God’s stormy appearance on Sinai. Nothing wrong with that. After all, Luther is said to have composed hymns from common songs.
The psalmist unashamedly attributes to Israel’s God the awe inspiring and often destructive effects of a storm. That is a little unnerving for us moderns who are squeamish about attributing anything to God that isn’t “nice.” Indeed, this psalm is particularly embarrassing in the shadow of hurricanes, floods and earthquakes that damage homes and take lives. Are such events God’s doing? Does God send storms or just allow them to occur? Does it make any difference either way? Is it anymore comforting to believe that God just fell asleep at the wheel and allowed a hurricane to happen rather than to believe that God deliberately sent one? Has the universe gotten so far out of God’s hands that God is no longer able to prevent hurricanes, earthquakes and tsunamis?
I don’t pretend to have neat answers to all these questions. But perhaps part of our problem is our homocentric view of things. Indeed, I would go further and suggest that the problem may be with our “me” centered approach to faith. It seems to me that a lot of our prayers are exceedingly self-centered. We pray for good weather on our vacations-even in times when our farms are desperate for rain. We pray for an economic recovery without any thought to the economic, ecological and social havoc our economy wreaks upon the world. Even our prayers for others often have a strong streak of selfishness in them. As the father of a child with a chronic medical condition, a day does not go by that I don’t pray for her healing. Yet lately I have been wondering about my motives. Am I looking for a special miracle? By what right do I get to push to the head of the line of parents with sick children to receive such special treatment? Thanks to the benefits of medical treatment afforded by her insurance plan, my daughter is able to live a relatively normal and healthy life despite her condition. So shouldn’t any miracle go to a child without these benefits? I find that too often my prayers do not venture beyond my own needs, concerns and the small circle of people in my small world.
Perhaps this psalm gives us some perspective. The psalmist does not begin his or her prayer with a request that God stop the storm or steer it in some other direction. The psalm begins with praise, awe and reverence for God. As Jesus taught his disciples, that is where all prayer needs to begin. Recall that in both of the creation stories from Genesis, the world was created first. In the first chapter of Genesis, the earth and all its creatures were created and declared good. Then human beings were created to rule over and care for the earth. Likewise in the second chapter of Genesis: the earth was created and God planted a garden in the earth. Then God created human beings to tend and care for the garden. The message is clear. It’s not all about us. The world was not designed to be a twenty-first century playground that is so well padded and equipped with safety features that no kid could ever possibly get hurt-or have any fun either. No, the world is far more like the way playgrounds used to be-a place where you can really play. It pains me to no end that my grandchildren will probably never know the ecstasy of rocketing half way to the sky on a real swing set. Nor will they ever experience the dizzying high you could get from one of those merry-go-rounds that we used to crank up to warp speed. Our public parks have been cleansed of all such unacceptable risks. The attorneys and insurance underwriters who have taken over our lives have determined that fun is just too dangerous for kids.
But don’t get me started on that. We were talking about the psalm and the fact that we are not the center of God’s universe. As C.S. Lewis once pointed out, God is not a tame lion. God is not “safe” and neither is the world God made. There is no room in the Bible or in real life for a wimpy, weak kneed religion that longs for a “nice” god. You can get hurt on this planet and tragically so. But for all that, the earth is a good place to be. It’s a place where you can have real fun. Beauty the likes of which you see in the ocean, in the storm and on the top of Sinai necessarily has an element of terror. The psalmist doesn’t hide in the storm shelter and plead with God not to be so scary. The psalmist praises God for this awesome display of power and rejoices in the beauty, wonder and terror of creation. This is the glorious world God made and the stage on which God acts. The psalmist doesn’t complain about its dangers. S/he prays instead that Israel will find the courage to live boldly and faithfully in this grand universe. Anybody who whines about bad weather and wishes that God had made a safer planet has never been on a real swing!
I must admit that I don’t know what to make of this brief snippet from Acts. I don’t know how a person can receive the Word of God without the aid of the Spirit, nor do I understand how one receives the Spirit apart from the Word. But one of those things or both seem to have occurred here. Rather than trying to make theological sense out of this, I prefer simply to take this passage as a warning against becoming too dogmatic about how faith and the Holy Spirit work. As I said before, I have performed more than a few baptisms where there appeared to be little in the way of proper motivation or even openness to faith. I don’t know what the outcome will be, but that is really out of my hands. When you invoke the Holy Spirit, you are by definition placing matters in hands beyond your own. In a sense, I suppose I am hoping that what happened in this text will eventually occur for these families, namely, that the Holy Spirit will fall upon them-however belatedly.
A couple of things are worth noting here. First off, the Holy Spirit falls upon Jesus well after he is baptized by John and while he is praying. The voice from heaven addresses Jesus specifically in the second person. It is not even clear that John is still present when this occurs. In verses 15-17, where John disavows any messianic role, he also downplays the significance of his baptizing ministry. “I baptize you with water; but he who is mightier than I is coming, the thong of whose sandals I am unworthy to untie; he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire.” Vs. 16. Thus, John’s baptism, whatever it might have accomplished, did not confer upon those baptized God’s Holy Spirit. According to Luke, Jesus’ receipt of the Holy Spirit seems to have occurred separately from his baptism by John.
The other significant aspect of this text is its location. In both Mark and Matthew, Jesus is led by the Holy Spirit still sopping wet from his baptism out into the wilderness to face temptation by Satan. In Luke’s gospel, Jesus’ receipt of the Holy Spirit is followed by a lengthy genealogy tracing Jesus’ ancestry all the way back to Adam. One cannot help but see in this the foreshadowing of what will occur in the second chapter of Acts where the Spirit falls upon the disciples who then preach the gospel in tongues understandable to a multitude of people from all corners of the known world. Jesus will be the conduit through which the Spirit of God will reach all peoples. Just as Jesus begins his ministry “full of the Holy Spirit” (Luke 4:1), so the church at Pentecost will begin its ministry filled with the Holy Spirit. If we would read Luke rightly, we need to keep the Book of Acts on the horizon. The same Spirit that animates Jesus’ ministry in Luke’s gospel will likewise animate the mission of the church in his Book of Acts.
“The heaven was opened,” is a term used frequently in apocalyptic literature. Vs. 21. The Greek word used by Luke translated “to open” here is milder than the term “ripped open” used in Mark’s gospel to describe the descent of the Holy Spirit upon Jesus. Mark 1:10. In both cases, however, the rending of the heavens is a literary device used to announce the radical intervention of God. In the 64th chapter of Isaiah, the prophet prays, “O that thou wouldst rend the heavens and come down…” Isaiah 64:1. That is precisely what is happening here as Jesus prays. The heavens are rent and the Spirit of God descends upon Jesus through whom God will now act.
What do all these texts have to say about baptism? The take away for me is that, when all is said and done, this is God’s act. We have no idea what we are unleashing when we stir the waters of the baptismal font over which the Spirit hovers and take the creative Word of God upon our lips. We can no more channel the power of God’s Spirit than we can control the raw energy of a storm. At most, our worship makes room for the Holy Spirit to enter in. But the Spirit blows where it wills.