Archive for November, 2016
Second Sunday of Advent
Prayer of the Day: Stir up our hearts, Lord God, to prepare the way of your only Son. By his coming nurture our growth as people of repentance and peace; through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.
The prophet Isaiah was not a fortune teller. Neither was he a dreamy, starry eyed idealist musing on utopian ideals. He was an astute observer of the geopolitical climate of the 8th Century B.C.E. He saw with clarity what Judah’s kings and princes failed to perceive. The world was changing. The age of small, petty kingdoms like Judah was drawing to a close. The future belonged to imperial superpowers like Assyria, Babylon and Egypt. The old policies, strategies and alliances that seemed to have served Judah well in the past were no longer working in this new age. Judah’s “business as usual” approach to the conduct of its commercial and political affairs was destined to lead the nation into disaster. For king and people, this was a fearful time. They could sense vaguely the storm brewing on the horizon, but had no clear understanding of what it was or how to meet it. There was no going back to the good old days and no obvious way forward. This was an age plagued by doubt, perplexity and fear-the perfect culture for growing the dangerous virus of messianic longing, the desire for a leader that can be trusted.
Fear makes us stupid. It can drive an otherwise thoughtful and intelligent person to make irrational decisions and bad choices. I have seen doctors and medical professionals turn to miracle vitamins peddled by late night TV infomercials when confronted with a menacing diagnosis. I have seen people who have spent a lifetime scoffing at organized religion and ridiculing those who follow it turn to palm readers, psychics and tarot cards when their loved ones are in peril. The heart wants desperately to believe in a comforting lie even though the brain knows better.
That is why fear responds so eagerly to an authoritative voice offering simple solutions for complex problems, fixating blame for all one’s ills on a convenient scapegoat and promising protection-all in exchange for loyalty that fearful people are often only too glad to give. Fear is the engine of populism, nationalism and lynch mobs. Fear grasps the outstretched hand of a strong man like a drowning cat latching onto anything within reach. Fear will make people trust and obey anyone who seems able to deliver the safety and security for which they long, no matter how implausible their promises appear in the light of reason. Frightened people are easily manipulated into doing frightening things. False messiahs understand this. They are masters at manipulating fear. It is not for nothing that Jesus warned us in last week’s gospel to beware of people who come to us in times of great calamity seeking a following and claiming “I am the one.”
The messiah promised by Isaiah does not appeal to our fear. Instead, he inspires hope. This messiah promises justice and righteousness for the nations-not vengeance against them. This messiah smites the earth, not with the sword, but with the “rod of his mouth,” that is, his words. This messiah promises, not the destruction of enemies, but their reconciliation. There will be peace, says the prophet, when the earth is “full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.” Arguments, not armies will finally win us peace. Reconciliation, not victory, will bring an end to the predatory relationship between peoples and the nation states that set them one against another. Security is found not in the building of walls, but in knocking them down. When God is feared, all that is less than God loses its power to terrify and intimidate. In the absence of fear, tyrants and demagogues lose their power; borders blur into nothingness and walls come tumbling down.
This is a bold confession: that what no army, no empire, no leader has ever been able to accomplish, God’s messiah will bring about with his voice, with his appeal to our hearts. The word, the Word Incarnate, the Word of God spoken by frail human tongues is mightier than the sword of the tyrant. Here’s a poem by Robert Graves about the divine power of words that might just resonate with the prophet Isaiah or perhaps even John the Evangelist.
The God Called Poetry
Now I begin to know at last,
These nights when I sit down to rhyme,
The form and measure of that vast
God we call Poetry, he who stoops
And leaps me through his paper hoops
A little higher every time.
Tempts me to think I’ll grow a proper
Singing cricket or grass-hopper
Making prodigious jumps in air
While shaken crowds about me stare
Aghast, and I sing, growing bolder
To fly up on my master’s shoulder
Rustling the thick stands of his hair.
He is older than the seas,
Older than the plains and hills,
And older than the light that spills
From the sun’s hot wheel on these.
He wakes the gale that tears your trees,
He sings to you from window sills.
At you he roars, or he will coo,
He shouts and screams when hell is hot,
Riding on the shell and shot.
He smites you down, he succours you,
And where you seek him, he is not.
To-day I see he has two heads
Like Janus—calm, benignant, this;
That, grim and scowling: his beard spreads
From chin to chin: this god has power
Immeasurable at every hour:
He first taight lovers how to kiss,
He brings down sunshine after shower,
Thunder and hate are his also,
He is YES and he is NO.
The black beard spoke and said to me,
‘Human fraility though you be,
Yet shout and crack your whip, be harsh!
They’ll obey you in the end:
Hill and field, river and marsh
Shall obey you, hop and skip
At the terrour of your whip,
To your gales of anger bend.’
The pale beard spoke and said in turn
‘True: a prize goes to the stern,
But sing and laugh and easily run
Through the wide airs of my plain,
Bathe in my waters, drink my sun,
And draw my creatures with soft song;
They shall follow you along
Graciously with no doubt or pain.’
Then speaking from his double head
The glorious fearful monster said
‘I am YES and I am NO,
Black as pitch and white as snow,
Love me, hate me, reconcile
Hate with love, perfect with vile,
So equal justice shall be done
And life shared between moon and sun.
Nature for you shall curse or smile:
A poet you shall be, my son.’
Robert Graves (1895-1985) was an English poet, novelist, critic and classicist. He produced more than 140 works. Graves received his early education at a series of six preparatory schools during which time he became a proficient boxer as well as a poet. At the outbreak of the First World War, Graves enlisted almost immediately and served with distinction, though his career as a soldier was hampered by the German elements in his name and a persistent (though unfounded) rumor that he had German sympathies and was a spy. His personal life was tumultuous. His first marriage ended in divorce. The business he undertook following the war failed leaving him destitute. Still, Graves continued to write and gradually gained recognition in his native England and abroad. You can learn more about Robert Graves and sample more of his poetry at the Poetry Foundation Website.
Though obviously connected with verses 1-9 by references to Jesse, the father of David, most scholars view verse 10 as part of a unit separate from these preceding verses. See, e.g., Mauchline, John Isaiah 1-39, (c 1962 SCM Press, Ltd.) p. 129. Verses 1-9 speak to the character of the promised Davidic king whereas verse 10 and following speak of his role in gathering together the exiles of Israel. In my view, adding verse 10 onto the end of the reading detracts from its powerful conclusion in verse 9: “for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.”
Isaiah 7:14 speaks of the birth of Emmanuel. Isaiah 9:6-7 describes a child born to bear the weight of governance on his shoulders and who is given several names descriptive of his attributes. This Sunday’s reading form Isaiah 11 must be considered in connection with these verses. There is some dispute over whether the new branch representing the messianic king grows merely from the line of David or whether use of the word “stump” suggests a tree that has been cut down. If the latter is the case, one would assume that the utterance took place during a time of national disaster threatening the existence of the Davidic line. Consequently, some commentators date this oracle in the post-exilic era attributing it to a prophet other than Isaiah. I am not convinced that the language is clear enough to make a firm determination. Moreover, even assuming that the stump denotes a denuded kingdom, such a condition also matches the state of affairs existing in the aftermath of the ruinous raid by Assyrian Emperor Sennacherib in 701 B.C.E. That invasion nearly obliterated the kingdom of Judah. However one might date the oracle, though, the prophet obviously looks for God to act through a descendent from the line of David.
The Spirit of God will rest upon the savior king. In the Hebrew Scriptures, the Spirit signifies God’s energy, vitality and life force which can be communicated to human beings. It can express itself in skill (Exodus 31:3; Exodus 35:31), wisdom (Genesis 41:38), courage (Judges 6:34) or prophetic insight (Numbers 11:25-30). The Spirit’s involvement here is not unlike Paul’s view of the one Spirit conferring numerous gifts upon the church. I Corinthians 12:4-11. Verse 2, declaring that upon this leader shall rest “the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord” is prominently featured in our baptismal liturgy as well as the confirmation and ordination rites. At first blush, it might sound odd to hear that the messianic savior’s “delight shall be in the fear of the Lord.” Delight and fear are not words I am used to hearing in such close proximity. Nonetheless, any intimate relationship that does not have an element of awe, wonder and, yes, fear in it probably isn’t worth having.
Verses 4-6 are critical in my view because they undermine the “myth of redemptive violence” that has gained nearly creedal status in mainline Christianity. Note well that when this king “smites” the earth he does so with “the rod of his mouth.” When he slays the wicked, he does it with “the breath of his lips.” God exercises his reign through speech-through the Word and Spirit-not through violent and coercive means. This shoot from the stump of Jesse is not simply a kinder, gentler Caesar on steroids. There is a reason why Jesus would not accept the political power and glory of the world’s kingdoms when offered to him on a silver platter. There is a reason for the observation that when the church seeks to shape history by seizing the levers of power, the world seldom gets any better but the church always becomes worse. Coercion, whether it comes in the form of naked military power or in the more subtle guise of a “political solution,” cannot bring about the state of affairs God desires. Only the Spirit working through the relentless proclamation of the Word can bring about the peaceable kingdom. Not until the earth is “full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea” can Isaiah’s vision become reality.
Obviously, the state of harmony among living creatures is contrary to everything we know about ecology and animal physiology. Clearly, one ought not to take these images as literal truth. Isaiah’s point is that the fear and hostility experienced by human beings from destructive carnivorous animals will end as the savior king’s reign extends even into the realm of nature. It is easy to lose sight of this point living as we do in a world where such animals have far more to fear from us than we need fear them! Still and all, this vision testifies to God’s end (telos) for creation that shatters all expectations based on our current understanding of the universe and its ways. Thus, we ought not to castrate Isaiah by turning his marvelous visions into mere metaphors of social progress. Such sermonic slop is hardly worth giving up a pleasant Sunday morning with the New York Times, a fresh bagel with cream cheese and a good cup of coffee.
This is a royal psalm probably used either for coronation ceremonies or the annual commemoration of God’s covenant with the line of David. The prayer has many similarities with those of Israel’s neighbors. For example, a hymn celebrating the accession of the Egyptian monarch, Ramses IV sometime around 1160 B.C.E. reads:
They who were hungry are sated and gay;
They who were thirsty are drunken.
They who were naked are clothed in fine linen;
They who were dirty are clad in white.
They who were in prison are set free;
They who were fettered are in joy.
The troublemakers in this land have become peaceful.
Pritchard, J.B. Ancient Near Eastern Texts, p. 379 cited in Rogerson,, J.W. and McKay, J.W., Psalms 51-100,The Cambridge Bible Commentary, (c 1977 Cambridge University Press) p. 113. The difference, of course, is that for Israel, the blessings arising out of the king’s rule are not merely incidental to strong leadership, but flow directly from faithfulness to the Davidic covenant making the king an agent of God’s justice. Consequently, justice for the poor, the widow and the orphan are the king’s particular concern. As the prophets point out, few if any of David’s descendents lived up to their covenant obligations. Even David himself sometimes fell short. Disappointment in Israel’s monarchy led the people of God to wonder whether any human agent is up to the task of doing justice and practicing righteousness. But perhaps that is the wrong question. Jesus’ messianic mission questions not the ability of human beings to rule justly, but the political structures, methods and strategies by which they attempt to do justice. Jesus’ faithful life, obedient death and glorious resurrection demonstrate, among other things, that violence does not work. Ever. Not even when it is used to achieve a greater good.
In its usual concern for protecting the sensibilities of graying, white, upper middle class, slightly left of center protestants, the lectionary has excised a chunk of this psalm in which the psalmist prays for the expansion of the king’s reign over “all” the nations. If you wish, you can read it here. Evidently the editors did not feel the expression of such imperialistic ambitions appropriate for worship. If you ask me, though, it is no more offensive than singing “Jesus shall reign where ‘er the sun, doth its successive journeys run.” If Jesus is who we say he is, then the song is perfectly appropriate. So, I would argue, is the middle of this psalm. Again, the question we must bring to this psalm is: “What sort of king are we talking about and what sort of reign does he exercise?” Regardless of what the psalmist or the worshipers who first sang this song may have thought, for those of us reading the scriptures through the lens of the cross this is a king that smites the world with his life giving speech, slays the wicked by convicting them through Word and Spirit and extends his rule over the nations by welcoming them into covenant. Our reading from Romans illustrates that very point.
Though this brief passage from Paul’s letter to the Romans seems to have been lifted out of the text with no thought to context, it nevertheless contains several verses well worth talking about. Verse 4 speaks about the purpose of the scriptures-which is to give us hope and encouragement. Yet how often haven’t we seen the scriptures used to judge, condemn, exclude and criticize? Instead of encouraging us to live in harmony, scriptural preaching has often been used to disrupt harmony, widen fault lines within the church and promote schism. There are volumes to be said on this score alone.
Hope is a recurring theme throughout this reading. It is said to be the focus of the scriptural witness. Vs 4. The messianic shoot from the root of Jesse is said to be the hope of the gentiles. Vs. 12. The reading concludes with Paul’s prayer that the Roman church “may abound in hope.” Vs. 13. This is certainly an appropriate topic for Advent!
Verse 7 is also a great starting point for speaking about hospitality. “Welcome one another, therefore, as Christ has welcomed you.” That would seem to exclude just about every rationale thinkable for denying entry into the church of Christ. Paul is often faulted for his lack of emphasis on Jesus’ life and teachings, but behind his instructions and admonitions to his churches you can find every parable Jesus ever spoke along with the Sermon on the Mount.
John the Baptist often gets a bum rap in biblical art. Frequently, he is portrayed as an angry sourpuss threatening his hearers with the wrath of God. He actually does that when the Pharisees and Sadducees come on the scene. But his preaching to the general public begins with a call to repentance framed in the context of Isaiah 40 which opens with the words, “Comfort, comfort my people, says your God.” Isaiah 40:1. The voice crying out for preparation of a way in the wilderness from Isaiah 40:3 is one of ecstatic joy. Repentance, therefore, is not to be understood as the woeful, breast beating, and self punishing sort of exercise that twisted medieval piety has made of it. Rather, it is a joyful turning away from self destructive attitudes and behavior toward new possibilities opened up by the intervention of a gracious and loving God. So forget the John you met in all those 1960s Sunday school leaflets. Matthew’s John laughs out loud and smiles.
More than any of the other gospel writers, Matthew makes clear the connection between the ministry of John the Baptist and Malachi’s prediction of Elijah’s return. See Malachi 4:5-6; Matthew 17:12. Nevertheless, just as I do not believe Matthew ties Jesus exclusively to any one particular Hebrew scriptural character, so also I think it is probably not a good idea to make too much of Matthew’s identification of John with Elijah. Just as his allusions to parallels between Jesus and Moses, Joshua, Elijah and the ancient people of Israel serve to illuminate Jesus’ identity from as many angles as possible, so too I think that the comparison between John and Elijah serves more to explain his prophetic ministry than to fit him into the framework of a master plot. See my post for Sunday, November 27th.
Why would the Pharisees and Sadducees be coming to John for baptism? That seems out of character from what we learn of them in the chapters to come. It is possible that this is merely a literary device designed to introduce us to the hypocrisy of these representatives of Judaism. Yet the gospels seem to agree that John was widely respected by the general public, so much so that the leaders were afraid to criticize him in the presence of the people. See Matthew 21:23-27; Mark 11:27-33; Luke 20:1-8. It is therefore possible that members of these two groups were drawn to John’s preaching and perhaps even sought his baptism. Their lives, however, were not transformed so as to produce fruit befitting repentance.
John’s ire against the Pharisees and Sadducees seems to be directed principally at their insistence (mutually antagonistic) that they represent the “true” Israel. In point of fact, God doesn’t care about “roots” (upon which the ax of God’s wrath will soon fall) but for “fruits,” that is, the quality of a life transformed in anticipation of the Kingdom of heaven. It is hard to know whether the lectionary makers saw the irony in juxtaposing Isaiah’s focus on the “root of Jesse” as an image of hope and John’s dismissal of rootedness even in the expansive line of Abraham. So what is it preacher? Roots or fruits?
Is it possible that in all this talk of making children of Abraham from stones, Matthew (or his source) is alluding to Isaiah 51:1-12? There the prophet invites his discouraged post-exilic hearers to “look to the rock from which you were hewn and the quarry from which you were digged. Look to Abraham your father and to Sarah who bore you; for when he was but one I called him and blessed him and made him many.” Isaiah 51:1-2. Clearly, God remains faithful to Israel and her people. But God’s faithfulness should not be taken for granted. Just as God made of the aged Abraham and his barren wife a great people, so God can “hew” another people from barren stone should the need arise. See Nolland, John, The Gospel of Matthew, The New International Greek Text Commentary (c. 2005 William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.) p. 144-45. Such an allusion is quite possible and would further emphasize Matthew’s insistence on repentance and transformation in anticipation of the coming kingdom over any claim of pedigree.
Matthew ties John’s ministry closely to Jesus. Their respective messages are identical: repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand. Matthew 3:2 and Matthew 4:17. Nevertheless, their respective roles are as different as night and day. For Matthew, John is a transitional figure. He represents the end of the line of Israel’s faithful prophets. As such, he is worthy of honor and recognition. But his mission consists in making way for Jesus whose coming initiates the new age of the Kingdom of Heaven. The least among the children of this new age is therefore even greater than John. Matthew 11:11-15.
First Sunday of Advent
Prayer of the Day: Stir up your power, Lord Christ, and come. By your merciful protection save us from the threatening dangers of our sins, and enlighten our walk in the way of your salvation, for you live and reign with the Father and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.
“Salvation is nearer to us now than when we first believed.” Romans 13:11.
At first blush, this isn’t particularly encouraging. These words of Paul were written in the middle of the First Century to a church that could not have existed much longer than a couple of decades. A couple of millennia later we hear this message and wonder what Paul could possibly have meant when he told the Christians of Rome that “the night is far gone” and “the day is at hand.” The stock answer given by a lot of New Testament scholars back in my seminary days was that Paul, like all First Century believers, expected the return of Jesus in his own lifetime. Neither he nor any of the other early believers suspected that the return of Jesus in glory might be “delayed” for a century, to say nothing of over two thousand years and counting. That explanation allows us to dismiss much of the New Testament’s ethical teachings on grounds that they are “eschatological” in nature. The Sermon on the Mount, Paul’s love ethic and the communal existence we read about in the Book of Acts must be understood as hastily drawn, interim guidelines for a community that did not believe it would be living in the present age for very long. Clearly, communal living, non-violence and renunciation of wealth are not practices that can be the defining values for a community desiring to maintain itself over the historical long run. At best, they reflect ideals for which monks and nuns might aspire, but which we who must live in the “real world” find unhelpful. So we can safely dispose with the New Testament and look elsewhere for ethical guidance.
As I have said in prior posts, I find this reading of the New Testament unpersuasive. While none of us can see into Saint Paul’s brain, I strongly suspect that his view of Jesus’ return in glory was a good deal more nuanced than these scholars allow. Though convinced of the imminent reality of Christ’s return in glory, the final judgment and the resurrection of the dead, Paul’s primary focus is always very much on the present state of things. The moral practices of his churches are anything but an afterthought. His is an ethic for a church living in the darkness of this present age in which the works of darkness abound in the surrounding culture. Paul’s call for militant resistance to the darkness with the “armor of light” underscores his confidence that the inbreaking of God’s kingdom is as sure as the dawn. How near or far away the sunrise might be in chronological time is irrelevant. For the disciple of Jesus, the hour is always late. Morning is already on the horizon. The light is already breaking into the world and the time for waking up and getting on with life in God’s resurrection kingdom is now. This, according to Paul, is the “real world.”
Paul has no interest in faith that accommodates the darkness. He doesn’t preach a gospel that helps us “cope” with the realities of our world. That’s why we have valium and TV. The status quo is not to be endured, but resisted. Paul has no use for a faith that is hardly worth pulling the kids out of soccer practice to learn. If the church doesn’t preach something worth your life’s devotion, then it should not be wasting an hour of your time on Sunday either. If the lives of Christians are not noticeably different from those of everyone else, what’s the point of joining the church? There are plenty of other places with good coffee, friendly people and entertaining things to do-and nobody will stick a plate under your nose. A church that fits nicely into its community is not worth the oxygen it uses up. It has gotten so comfortable living in the dark that it thinks it belongs there. When the light of God’s kingdom breaks in, such churches find themselves blinded and frantically shuttering their eyes just like everyone else.
Paul boldly proclaims a brand new reality-something that is worth living for and, if necessary, dying for. Paul calls us to re-orientate our focus. We look in vain toward the western horizon, trying desperately to find light and hope in the ever diminishing glow of the vanishing day. Instead, we need to face the darkness squarely with the confident belief that our salvation comes from the dawn whose light cannot yet be seen, but whose coming is as certain as yesterday’s end. We are challenged to be communities living in the darkness as though in broad daylight; people shaping our lives as though we lived now in the nearer presence of our Lord. We are challenged to become the kind of communities we long for and that, by virtue of Jesus’ resurrection, we confidently anticipate. In the face of so much doom saying, the Advent scriptures insist that the night in which we now live must inevitably give way to a new day.
What does such an Advent community look like in a fragmented society such as ours? What does church look like in neighborhoods filled with strangers who commute hours to their place of work and socialize principally with clients and coworkers? What does Jesus’ call to discipleship mean for people increasingly enslaved by the demands of employers, financial institutions to which they are indebted and the anxieties of unemployment, loss of medical insurance and everything that follows in the wake of such losses?
Perhaps the most important contribution the church has to offer is that of simply being the church. What made the church an object of awe in the New Testament was its members’ commitment to one another. There was not among them any that were in need, Luke tells us in the Book of Acts. This was a community that said to a world under imperial oppression, military occupation and slavery, “It doesn’t have to be this way.” Hunger is not inevitable. Class distinctions are not absolute. Race is not a defining human characteristic. Conflict need not lead to violence. This community is living proof of that. This is a demo plot for the reign of Christ. Not surprisingly, a lot of people who witnessed all this wanted in. In the New Testament church, your fellow disciples had your back. That was important because discipleship was dangerous. Taken seriously, it still is. And it’s costly. It takes guts for a congregation to pledge that none of its members will ever go without a roof over his head, the medical care she needs or food on the table. It takes courage to give sacrificially to help a sister or brother in time of need trusting that the community will be there for you when your time of need comes. It’s risky to open your doors to strangers. Societies that specialize in building walls between peoples (real and metaphorical) don’t like seeing them knocked down. But that is precisely what the kingdom of heaven does.
There is a danger, Saint Paul knew, of becoming too comfortable with the darkness, too much at home in a world that is in rebellion against its Creator. Here’s a poem by Ilya Kaminsky about such false and deceptive comfort.
We Lived Happily During the War
And when they bombed other people’s houses, we
but not enough, we opposed them but not
enough. I was
in my bed, around my bed America
was falling: invisible house by invisible house by invisible house.
I took a chair outside and watched the sun.
In the sixth month
of a disastrous reign in the house of money
in the street of money in the city of money in the country of money,
our great country of money, we (forgive us)
lived happily during the war.
Ilya Kaminsky was born in 1977 in the former Soviet Union city of Odessa. His family was granted political asylum by the United States in 1993 and they settled in Rochester, New York. Kaminsky earn a BA in political science at Georgetown University and a JD at the University of California’s Hastings College of Law. He is a recipient of the Whiting Writers’ Award, the Milton Center’s Award for Excellence in Writing, the Florence Kahn Memorial Award, Poetry magazine’s Levinson Prize as well as their Ruth Lilly Fellowship, Philips Exeter Academy’s George Bennett Fellowship, and a Lannan Foundation fellowship. You can learn more about Ilya Kaminsky and sample more of his poetry at the Poetry Foundation website.
The introductory comment at verse 1 indicates that this chapter begins a collection of sayings associated with the prophet Isaiah that once constituted an independent collection. The material from our lesson was therefore not joined to the rest of what we now know as the Book of Isaiah until a later time. The prophesies introduced by this opening line probably extend at least until Isaiah 4:6 and may also include Isaiah 5:1-7; Isaiah 5:8-24; Isaiah 10:1-4; Isaiah 9:8-21; Isaiah 5:25, 26-30. Kaiser, Otto, Isaiah 1-12, A Commentary, The Old Testament Library (c. 1972 SCM Press Ltd.) p. 23.
Verses 2-5 are also found in Micah 4:1-4. This could mean that one prophet was relying upon the other, but the more probable explanation is that this oracle of salvation grew out of ancient Israelite cultic worship traditions from which both prophets drew. Kaiser, supra goes so far as to suggest that the saying was introduced into the works of both prophets by a later editor in the post-exilic period. Placement of such a liturgical expression of hope from pre-exilic times into the collected oracles of these pre-exilic prophets strengthened the prophetic witness and encouraged the post-exilic community in its struggle to understand its new role as God’s people in their changed circumstances.
Be that as it may, the saying in its present context (which is the only one that really interests me) juxtaposes in stark contrast the future declared by Israel’s God against the present reality of impending and actual war. In the midst of this violent geopolitical neighborhood where imperial superpowers vie for control and the smaller players seek to survive by playing one such empire off against the next through ever shifting alliances, the little nation of Judah is called to be something other than one more petty kingdom thrown into the mix. “The mountain of the house of the Lord shall be established as the highest of the mountains” says the prophet. Isaiah 2:2. Yet what exalts Judah is not her military might or her commercial power, but her Torah. Her covenant wisdom, not her sword will bring all nations under the righteous reign of Israel’s God. When the treasure of Torah is opened up to the nations, they will seek it eagerly and submit their disputes to God’s judgment there under. When perfect justice is so established, weapons will become obsolete. Resources dedicated to producing them can now be put to more productive use. Verse 5 concludes with a plea for Judah to begin doing now what she and all other nations must inevitably do in the end: walk in the light of the Lord. God’s people are called to live in God’s future now.
This passage presents a bold challenge to all of us in mainline churches that have reliably and often uncritically supported military action, assuming it to be a necessary accessory to the “kingdom of God’s left hand” (To use a peculiarly Lutheran term). Though we generally subscribe to the “just war doctrine,” we seldom apply its criterion vigorously when the prospect of military conflict ensues. More often than not, we issue preachy/screechy denominational statements for public consumption, stand on the sidelines and allow political and military leaders to make all the decisions based largely on “national interests,” which, by the way, do not justify military action according to just war doctrine. How might we begin “walking in the light of the Lord” in the midst of this very violent global village? In a society where trading sound bites and exchanging rhetorical barbs from across entrenched ideological battle lines passes for dialogue, how do communities of faith bear witness to a better way of conversing with one another about important issues? How do churches reflect to the world an alternative way of living together?
This psalm is part of a collection within the Psalter designated “Songs of Ascent.” (Psalms 120-134) While the precise meaning of this title is unknown, it is probable that these psalms were used on the occasion of pilgrimages to Jerusalem by Diaspora Jews visiting the second temple built following the return from Babylonian Exile. It is important to keep in mind, however, that although these psalms were compiled into this collection following the Babylonian Exile, the psalms themselves or portions of them might well belong to a much earlier period.
The psalmist expresses devotion to and longing for Jerusalem. Verse 1 suggests that the pilgrim is overcome with awe upon arriving at the holy city and standing within its gates. Though probably used by post-exilic pilgrims visiting Jerusalem, these verses might well date back to the monarchic period of Judah when the kingdom of David was still intact. The psalmist refers to Jerusalem as the place where all the tribes come together. Vs. 4. Though th
is was surely the case during the reigns of David and Solomon, it is not clear whether and to what extent this practice was continued by the northern ten tribes after the kingdom was divided into Israel in the north and Judah in the south. The phrase may therefore indicate early composition between 1000 B.C.E. to 900 B.C.E. during the united monarchy. On the other hand, the reference might well be symbolic, reflecting the unifying function of Jerusalem for Diaspora Jews following the return from exile in 530 B.C.E.
Verse 6 seems to be a word play on “Jerusalem,” the shorter form of which is “Salem,” and “peace” which in Hebrew is “Shalom.” Thus, “Pray for the shalom of Jerusalem.” The term shalom means more than mere absence of conflict. It denotes wholeness, health and wellbeing. As I have often said before, I am not a big fan of interfaith dialogue as it seldom produces anything more than generalities and platitudes you can get at your local Hallmark store. However, I believe that Jews, Muslims and Christians might have a fruitful discussion about what the city of Jerusalem means in each of their respective traditions and how, working together, we might make it a place of peace.
This snippet from Paul’s letter to the Romans comes in the middle of some admonitions delivered to the Roman church. Paul has completed in Chapter 11 his lengthy discussion of Israel’s and the church’s role in God’s plan of redemption. Now he turns to practical pastoral concerns. Paul speaks more generally here than in his other letters, probably because this is a congregation Paul did not start and has never personally visited. Nevertheless, he appears to know several of the persons involved with the congregation at Rome, most notably Prisca (Priscilla) and Aquila who assisted him in founding the church at Corinth. Acts 18:1-4.
Paul begins by urging the Roman believers to “present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God.” Romans 12:1. He then warns them not to be conformed to the surrounding culture, but “transformed by the renewal of your mind, that you may prove what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.” Romans 12:2. These verses reflect the practical outcome of Paul’s understanding of church as the presence of and witness to the resurrected Christ in the midst of the world. The church’s life is to reflect God’s future, an alternative to the carnivorous culture of death that is the Roman Empire. Just as Jesus’ body was broken on the cross, the resurrected Body of Christ can expect resistance and opposition to its way of being in the world. Thus, the sacrifice Paul calls for here is not an afternoon of raking leaves out of the church parking lot. Being the church is a dangerous profession.
In the reading for today Paul urges the Roman congregation to “stay awake” and be alert, for “salvation is nearer to us now than when we first believed.” Romans 13:11. That theme is echoed in our gospel lesson from Matthew. The phrase that caught my eye in this reading was Paul’s call to “put on the Lord Jesus Christ.” Having had three of my kids in the high school band, I know firsthand the transformative effect of a uniform. The band uniform was a reminder to my children and their fellow band members that they were not just another bunch of high school kids. They were members of an organization that made certain demands on them, set them apart from the rest of the community and called them to a higher standard of conduct. They acted much differently when in uniform.
A uniform also raises expectations from outsiders. If fire breaks out in a building, you wouldn’t blame anyone for trying to get out-unless the person is wearing the gear of a fire fighter. You expect fire fighters to act differently in the face of a fire. You expect them to enter into the zone of danger. They are not supposed to run away from it. Similarly, when one puts on Christ one assumes the calling of a disciple of Jesus. As Jesus offered himself up as a living sacrifice, so his disciples are called to place themselves in harm’s way if necessary for the sake of God’s Kingdom.
With the dawn of a new church year, we say farewell to Luke and embark on the gospel narrative given to us by Matthew. Though most scholars date both Matthew and Luke sometime after the destruction of the Jerusalem temple in 70 A.C.E., recent scholarship has questioned this dating. For example, John Noland, academic dean and lecturer in New Testament studies at Trinity College in Bristol, England believes that Matthew wrote his Gospel before the Jewish War that lead to the fall of Jerusalem. Noland, John, The Gospel of Matthew, The New International Greek Testament Commentary (c. 2005 Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.) p. 12. Noland notes that scholars dating the gospel after the Jewish War point to Matthew 22:7; Matthew 23:36-38 and Matthew 24:2 as reflecting memories of this traumatic event. However, given the strained political atmosphere of resentment toward Rome and the frequent and reckless insurgencies against Roman rule throughout the first century, it would not have been surprising that an astute observer like Jesus should have foreseen Jerusalem’s destruction as did Jeremiah in the years immediately before 587 B.C.E. Noland shares with most scholars the view that Matthew was dependent upon the Gospel of Mark and source material also available to Luke in constructing his own gospel. This means, of course, that both Mark and the source common to Matthew and Luke were also composed significantly earlier than most scholars assume. Consequently, the source material utilized by the gospel writers likely emerged during the life time of eye witness to Jesus life and ministry. It is conceivable also that the writers themselves were witnesses. If this is the case, we lose the historical gap between the gospel witness and the so called “Jesus of history.” While I still lean toward the majority view that Matthew post dates the Jewish War, I am keeping an open mind.
Matthew makes more specific citations to the Hebrew Scriptures than any of the other three gospels. This has led most scholars to conclude that his gospel is written for a Jewish Christian audience. Though the location of Matthew’s community cannot be determined with certainty, the prevailing view among New Testament scholars is that the community was located at Antioch in modern day Syria. Noland, supra, at 18. Though numerous attempts have been made to discern efforts on Matthew’s part to parallel his narrative of Jesus with Moses, the patriarchs or the people of Israel as a whole, none of them seem to hold up with any consistency. In my own humble opinion, Matthew was not attempting such a ridged comparison with any one particular Hebrew Scriptural narrative. Instead, he was intent on drenching his story of Jesus in Hebrew prophecy, employing numerous Old Testament parallels, citations and images in order to enrich Jesus’ portrait. Matthew portrays Jesus as a new Moses; a prophet in the tradition of Elijah; and a royal heir to the throne of David. In the end, though, none of these images is fully capable of containing him. Like the new wine poured into old wine skins, Jesus bursts through even the most powerful, eloquent and beautiful messianic images showing himself finally to be God’s only beloved Son.
There are many gospel events narrated only in the Gospel of Matthew. The coming of the Magi to the infant Jesus by the guidance of the star in the east which triggered the tragic slaughter of the innocents is found only in Matthew. Matthew alone has Jesus and his family sojourning in Egypt. Parables unique to Matthew include the story of the workers in the vineyard (Matthew 20:1-16); the story of the wise and foolish maidens (Matthew 25:1-13); and the account of the last judgment (Matthew 25:31-46). As we will see, these stories and parables help us understand Matthew’s particular focus as his witness to Jesus unfolds.
The gospel reading for Sunday calls upon the disciples to be prepared. I think that is the sum total of the message here. But for us that is frequently too little and too much. It is too little in the sense that we look for more to do than simply wait and hope. Literalist readers of the scripture turn the strange passages about those who are taken and those who are left in every which direction in an effort to figure out how and when the end of the world will come. Moreover, as Stanley Hauerwas points out, liberal progressive readers who have no use for mapping out the end times nevertheless assume that disciples of Jesus are capable of discerning the God intended direction history should take and use every means available to turn it in that direction. Hauerwas, Stanley, Matthew, Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible (c. 2006 by Stanley Hauerwas, Brozos Press) p. 204. In both cases, these readers are chasing the voices of false prophets claiming to know more than they do. The siren call of the false prophets would lure us away from following Jesus into a fruitless attempt to ferret out information that the Father has specifically withheld from us or goad us into a misguided seizure of the levers of political power in order to “make history come out right.”
“Both temptations-to employ Jesus’ apocalyptic imagery to predict the end time or to discern the movement of history-betray the character of Jesus’ training of his disciples. He is trying to teach them how they must live in the light of his coming. The dramatic character of apocalyptic language should help the disciples understand the challenge he presents to them. We, along with the disciples, make a disastrous mistake, however, if we allow our imaginations to be possessed by the images of apocalypse rather than by the one on whom these images are meant to focus our attention-that is, Jesus.” Hauerwas, supra, p. 205.
Verses 40-41 in which Jesus speaks of two men working in the field and two women grinding at the mill at the coming of the son of man, one of each being “taken” and the other “left,” figure prominently in the Left Behind novels by Tim Lehaye and Jerry B. Jenkins. Because I don’t believe in the “rapture,” I naturally do not believe that these verses have anything to do with that fanciful event. Standing alone, it is not even obvious from these verses whether it is more desirable to be taken than left behind. However, in the context of the previous discussion about Noah’s salvation through the Ark and Lot’s rescue from Sodom’s destruction, it seems likely to me that being “taken” is equivalent to salvation on the day of the Son of Man. The wise maidens whose faithful watching resulted in their being received into the wedding celebration is instructive as is the judgment in favor of all who practiced compassion toward their vulnerable neighbors and so found a welcome from the Son at the last day. (Matthew 25:1-13 and Matthew 25:31-46).
Christ the King
Prayer of the Day: O God, our true life, to serve you is freedom, and to know you is unending joy. We worship you, we glorify you, we give thanks to you for your great glory. Abide with us, reign in us, and make this world into a fit habitation for your divine majesty, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.
The critical question we face on this Sunday of Christ the King is posed in a hymn we often sing on that occasion: “O Christ, What Can it Mean for Us to Claim you as our King?” What indeed can it mean for us to claim as the ultimate authority in our lives the one who associated with the outcast, befriended the outlaw, blessed the poor, welcomed the outsider and chose death over violence?
The recent uptick in racial violence poses this question in a particularly pointed way to those of us who identify as white. On the Wednesday following election day, numerous acts of racist and sexist aggression occurred throughout the United States. Two male Babson College students drove a pickup truck waving a Donald Trump flag through the campus of Wellesley College where my daughter and other Wellesley alumnae had gathered for an election watch party. The truck cruised in front of Harambee House, a meeting place for students of color, as the two shouted racist and sexist insults and spit in the direction of Wellesley Students. In South Philadelphia the words “Seig Heil 2016,” were spray painted across a storefront window along with a swastika. In Wellsville, New York, a softball dugout at a local park was reportedly defaced with the words “Make America White Again” and a swastika. In the Minneapolis suburb of Maple Grove, students at the local high school were greeted on Wednesday morning with the words, “Whites Only” along with a string of obscene and racist remarks I will not dignify by repeating. And in York, Pennsylvania, students were filmed chanting “white power” while parading through the halls at a local high school. That was all in just one single day.
Racism has been endemic to American culture since the days of our founding. To the credit of many of our leaders, black, white, Asian, Latino and others, we have eradicated the most overt forms it has taken. But racial injustice has continued to operate under the radar of our laws and policies. I doubt it is any worse today than in prior decades, but I do believe the fierce campaign rhetoric from this election cycle has unleashed the beast. Racial slurs and sexist insults, that for long years were never spoken in polite company, have been dragged up from the sewers and brought back into mainline discourse. We have sent a message to many of our young people that it is OK, even “cool” to be racist again.
Over the last week I have heard a lot of admonitions to let by bygones be bygones, accept the result of the election and move on. That actually sounds pretty good to me. I would like nothing more than to erase all memory of this last campaign from my hard drive and start fresh! I’m not a sore loser. One of my first official pastoral acts on Wednesday morning after election day was to pray for President Elect, Donald Trump. I wish him and the new administration well. But I am fearful for the well-being of my friends who are people of color. I am fearful for my loved ones who are lesbian, gay and transgendered. I am worried about the growing number of folks who seem to think it is now OK to threaten, insult and humiliate them. I can accept the result of the election, but I will never accept a culture in which people of color, sexual minorities and women must live in fear. Whatever other political differences we might have, I hope we can say that we are agreed on that.
As church, we confess that all human beings share one ancestor and all are called to redemption through one baptism into the one Body of Christ. Because this baptismal oneness is at the heart of the scriptures, the creeds and our confessions, we can’t simply sweep the scandal of racial injustice under the rug. Neither can we remain silent when the most vulnerable among us are targets of terror and intimidation. What is being done to our sisters and brothers throughout the country is being done to Jesus, our King. When we overcome our spiritual neuropathy, when we understand that we truly are one body and that the health of the whole depends on the health of each part, then we will realize that what is being done to our sisters and brothers is being done to ourselves as well. Because we claim Jesus as our king, we can be nowhere else but at the side of all who are now feeling the sting of discrimination, bullying and intimidation.
Here’s a poem by Langston Hughes. May we all learn to see the world through his eyes and with his clarity!
I Look at the World
I look at the world
From awakening eyes in a black face—
And this is what I see:
This fenced-off narrow space
Assigned to me.
I look then at the silly walls
Through dark eyes in a dark face—
And this is what I know:
That all these walls oppression builds
Will have to go!
I look at my own body
With eyes no longer blind—
And I see that my own hands can make
The world that’s in my mind.
Then let us hurry, comrades,
The road to find.
Source: Poetry Magazine (January 2009) Langston Hughes was an important African American voice in the “Harlem Renaissance” of the 1920s. Though well-educated and widely traveled, Hughes’ poetry never strayed far from his roots in the African American community. Early in his career, Hughes’ work was criticized by some African American intellectuals for portraying what they viewed as an unflattering representation of back life. In a response to these critics, Hughes replied, “I didn’t know the upper class Negroes well enough to write much about them. I knew only the people I had grown up with, and they weren’t people whose shoes were always shined, who had been to Harvard, or who had heard of Bach. But they seemed to me good people, too.” Today Langston Hughes is recognized globally as a towering literary figure of the 20th Century. You can read more about Hughes and discover more of his poetry at the Poetry Foundation website (from which the above quote is taken).
Jeremiah pulls no punches here. He faults Judah’s kings, her “shepherds,” for recklessly leading the nation into a ruinous war with Babylon that resulted in the destruction of Jerusalem, the exile of a substantial number of Jews and the scattering of the remainder of the people into distant lands. His criticism of these rulers, however, goes far beyond the obvious failure of their geopolitical policies. By referring to them as “shepherds,” Jeremiah is reminding his hearers that kingship in Israel was never intended to be a position of privilege. At the coronation of a Judean king, the people prayed:
Give the king your justice, O God,
and your righteousness to a king’s son.
2 May he judge your people with righteousness,
and your poor with justice.
3 May the mountains yield prosperity for the people,
and the hills, in righteousness.
4 May he defend the cause of the poor of the people,
give deliverance to the needy,
and crush the oppressor.
Psalm 72:1-4. The king was to be the agent of God’s justice and compassion in Israel. The wellbeing of the people, particularly the most vulnerable members of society, was to be the king’s chief concern. King Zedekiah’s decision to release Judah’s slaves in accord with the provisions of the Torah in the face of imminent military invasion and his calculated revocation of that ruling when the threat seemed to recede demonstrates just how callus and dismissive the rulers of Jeremiah’s time had become to the responsibilities of kingship. See post from October 27, 2013. In response, God declares through the mouth of Jeremiah that he himself will take kingship into his own hands. God will gather the remnants of Judah from all the nations to which they have fled or been carried away in exile. God will lead them back to their land and shepherd them with justice and compassion. It seems here as though God were saying, “If you want something done right, you have to do it yourself.”
But then in verse 5 the Lord declares through his prophet that he will raise up a “righteous Branch” for David who will deal wisely and shall execute justice and righteousness in the land. This seems contrary to the previous declaration in which God appears to have given up altogether on the line of David and human kingship. It is possible that this oracle comes from an earlier period in Jeremiah’s career when he may still have hoped for a righteous king to emerge from David’s line. The passage might also be from a subsequent editor who held such a hope. However that might be, the canonical testimony is that kingship over God’s people is rooted in God’s reign over all of creation. That reign is characterized by care for the land, compassion for God’s people and faithfulness to God’s covenant. That no human ruler has ever come close to exercising such a gentle and peaceful reign suggests that the good life God intends for creation cannot be implemented by political means.
It has been said that “war is not merely an act of policy but a true political instrument, a continuation of political intercourse carried on with other means.” Carl von Clausewitz, On War. The converse is also true, namely, that politics is war by other means. It is after all through political arrangements, international treaties and multi-national commercial agreements that the dominance of the wealthier nations over the vast majority of poverty stricken peoples is maintained. The political structures that enforce grinding poverty, starvation and oppression are no less violent than terrorist attacks. Economic sanctions inflicting hunger and poverty on populations having little or no control over the governments these sanctions were intended to punish are acts of violence as devastating as any bombing raid. Most often, differences between the “military” and the “political” solution to a conflict are merely definitional. Violence is always the common denominator.
It is not for nothing, therefore, that Jesus refused to take hold of the levers of political power when they were handed to him on a silver platter by the devil. It is not for nothing that Jesus taught his disciples that the use of violence, whether offensively or defensively, is not an option for them. It is not for nothing that Jesus would not allow his disciples to use violence to defend him from crucifixion and that he also refused to invoke violent divine intervention against his enemies. It is not for nothing that God responded to the murder of his only begotten Son not with vengeance, but by raising him up and offering him to us again. Absolute renunciation of violence is not just the fringe position of a few Christians at the margins of orthodoxy. It stands at the heart of the New Testament witness to Jesus. If Jesus is our king, we can have no truck with violence whether on the battlefield or in the halls of congress.
Is politics therefore to be avoided totally? I don’t believe so. Every community needs order and disciples of Jesus benefit no less from the protections afforded, the benefits offered and the security ensured by government. Accordingly, disciples are obligated to share in the responsibility for maintaining the health and proper functioning of governmental institutions through political involvement. But like all good gifts, politics becomes toxic when it is used for selfish and self-serving ends. It becomes demonic when it usurps the reign of God. The idolatries of nationalism, imperialism and colonialism stem from divinizing nation, race, tribe or ideology.
See my post from October 27, 2013 on which this psalm was one of the appointed lessons. I will only add here that verse 9 emphasizes God’s emphatic commitment to “make all wars cease to the end of the earth.”
For an excellent introduction to this epistle, see the Summary Article by Paul S. Berge, Emeritus Professor of New Testament on enterthebible.org. Of particular interest in this reading are verses 15-20. These passages are believed by most scholars to consist of an ancient Christian hymn to Christ that was incorporated into the letter by the author. As such, they demonstrate that from very early on the church understood Jesus’ life, death and resurrection to be an event of cosmic proportions with ramifications for the whole creation. The opening stanza of the hymn proclaims Jesus as “the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation.” Vs. 15. Yet he is also “the head of the body, the church…” vs. 18. Consequently, the church is the concrete expression of the presence of God in and for the world. This is a remarkable claim made for a teacher from an obscure town who was ultimately rejected by the leaders of his people, deserted by all of his followers and put to a cruel, shameful death by a Roman governor.
The cosmic scope of Jesus’ ministry is reflected in the claim that through him God “reconciled to himself all things, whether on earth or heaven, making peace through the blood of his cross.” Vs. 20. The resurrection of Jesus is therefore not merely the hope of individual believers. It is the destiny of all creation of which the church is but the first fruits. This bold assertion refutes the limited, non-biblical notion of salvation as a rescue operation to save as many souls as possible from a sinking ship. Clearly, God is determined to save the entire ship! That is what makes the gospel good news not only for disciples of Jesus, but for all creation.
The temptation, of course, is to “spiritualize” this passage. Paul does not wish for us to view our “inheritance of the saints in light” as a future event. These riches belong to us even now and should shape the way we live our lives and the way we handle our wealth. If the world remains unreconciled to God; if we are a people without a heavenly Father who promises to provide for all our needs; if the world is a place of ever diminishing resources-then the only sensible thing to do is grab as much of the pie as you can now before it disappears altogether. This is the survivalist mentality. If the reign of God has any meaning to such people, it is in the distant future, after death, in the sweet by and by. That is all well and good. But I have to live now.
Paul’s point, however, is that the inheritance of the saints in light is now. The fullness of God is present now in the community of faith, a community that is called to live now under the jurisdiction of God’s reign of abundance and peace. How else will the creation learn that reconciliation has been accomplished? How else will the world know that there is an alternative to our death spiral of endless consumer greed for more stuff and ruthless commercial exploitation of the earth to feed it? Unless the Body of Christ practices confidence in God’s reconciling power and the generosity it inspires, how will the world ever understand what human life is supposed to look like? How will people come to believe that the future of creation is resurrection rather than apocalyptic demise unless they see the reality of resurrection faith lived out by Jesus’ disciples?
This passage seems to put to bed once and for all any claim Jesus might have to kingship. His death is one reserved for insurrectionists, terrorists and those guilty of the most heinous crimes. Pilate inscribes over the cross the title “King of the Jews” so that everyone will understand that before you go claiming to be a king, you had better make sure you really are one. In Mark and Matthew Jesus is mocked by all who pass by. In Luke’s gospel, however, a crowd of people including many women accompany Jesus to the cross with weeping and lamentation. Luke 23:27. The Jewish leaders mock and deride Jesus, but the crowds merely stand by silently witnessing the crucifixion. Vs. 35. Though all of the gospels report that Jesus was crucified along with two other criminals, only Luke relates the story of the criminal who sought recognition in Jesus’ coming kingdom. He alone seems to recognize Jesus’ kingship, a subject of mockery for the Roman soldiers and the Jewish leaders. Though sympathetic, it is not at all clear that the crowds recognize Jesus as anything more than a righteous teacher suffering an undeserved fate.
Luke’s account of Jesus’ crucifixion turns our notion of kingship on its head. It is clear now that the reign of God is taking a very different form than we might have expected. Jesus is certainly not a king under any existing model of kingship. He has no army, nor royal court, no power to compel obedience. His might-and the might of God as well-consist in just this: that Jesus is able to continue loving his enemies in the face of the most virulent hatred. Just as he refused to accept his disciples’ efforts to defend him with the sword or to invoke divine power in his own defense in the Garden of Gethsemane, so now he will not rain down curses at his enemies from the cross. His only words are words of forgiveness. God will not be sucked into the vortex of retribution. That is God’s power. “For not with swords loud clashing, nor roll of stirring drums, but deeds of love and mercy the heavenly kingdom comes.” “Lead on, O King Eternal,” Lutheran Book of Worship, # 495.
What exactly did Jesus mean when he told the bandit crucified with him on the cross: “Today you will be with me in paradise?” According to the understanding of death in the Hebrew Scriptures, the end of life is the end of everything; body soul, spirit and whatever else might constitute a human person. Sheol, the abode of the dead, was not viewed as a continuation of life after death. Rather, it was a sort of universal grave yard of unknowing. In the much later apocalyptic writings like Daniel, we find a growing belief in the resurrection of the dead. Nevertheless, the dead are truly and completely dead. If they are raised to life again, it is only because God exercises his prerogative to breathe life back into the lifeless dust all flesh is destined to become.
By the dawn of the first century when Jesus’ ministry took place, Jewish beliefs about death and the afterlife were diverse and complex. The Sadducees, as we saw last week, rejected altogether the resurrection of the dead or any form of human existence after death. The Pharisees, by contrast acknowledged the resurrection of the dead. Some of them at some point also believed in a paradise for the souls of the righteous awaiting the resurrection. According to at least one commentator I have read, this post-biblical understanding of paradise was behind Jesus’ promise to the bandit crucified with him. Caird, G.B. The Gospel of Saint Luke, The pelican New Testament Commentaries (c. G.B. Caird, 1963, Penguin Books, Ltd.) p. 253.
I don’t buy it. The scriptures use a host of metaphors and images when speaking about death and resurrection (how else can you speak of such things?). It is dangerous to draw metaphysical conclusions from parabolic speech. The Greek word translated “paradise” in this passage merely means “garden.” It was employed by the Greek translation of the Old Testament scriptures to describe the Garden of Eden. As such, it was also used as a metaphor for the restored creation under the reign of God. Jesus’ promise, then, was that the crucified criminal would share in the reign of God which was breaking through even now under the sign of the cross. There is no attempt here to explicate the metaphysical implications of all this (assuming there are such).
Twenty-Sixth Sunday after Pentecost
Prayer of the Day: O God, the protector of all who trust in you, without you nothing is strong, nothing is holy. Embrace us with your mercy, that with you as our ruler and guide, we may live through what is temporary without losing what is eternal, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.
This Sunday’s lessons are hard to hear. They all bear the dreadful news of God’s judgment. Even the Psalm, which is a jubilant hymn of praise, ends with the dire warning that the Lord “comes to judge the earth.” I am not sure how to preach these texts as good news in the shadow of an election cycle that has laid bare for us the darkest angels of our nature and exposed the deep race, class, gender and ideological divides in our nation. By the time Sunday rolls around, the question of who is to occupy the oval office will have been settled. But I doubt that the deep wounds we have inflicted upon one another will be on their way to healing anytime soon. With all of the raw anger hanging in the air, what healing effect can be expected from preaching the anger of God? With all the judging we have done against one another over the last year, what good can possibly come from turning up the volume of that anger to cosmic dimensions?
Perhaps there is a silver lining here. After all, anger thrives only between siblings, neighbors, people who have some connection to each other. Even enemies are bonded, if only by their mutual hate. I wouldn’t much care what a perfect stranger thought or did about something in which I have no interest. Our anger, then, is at least a testament that our identity as a people remains intact. We are united by matters about which we all passionately care. My hope is that we will eventually find the grace to see beyond our differences to a good that is common to all of us. Whoever occupies the White House during the next four years will have no greater challenge than helping us catch a glimpse of that good which is greater and more inspiring than all of our own selfish interests.
So, too, I believe that the anger of God testifies to God’s abiding commitment to God’s creation and God’s people. It is the shape God’s passionate love takes in a creation distorted, exploited and ruined by the selfish appetites of its human creatures. It is precisely because God loves us so dearly that God says “no” to our self-destructive impulses, “no” to our Promethean ambitions to exploit the earth, “no” to the exaltation of our own clans, tribes and nations over God’s gracious reign. God will not permit us to achieve peace at the expense of justice, happiness at the expense of compassion or wealth at the expense of the poor. Yes, God is angry, but not because of anything we have done directly to God. Yes, God inflicts punishment, but not because God cannot abide infractions against God’s law. God is angry over the misery our sin inflicts upon ourselves and our neighbors. God’s punishment aims not to repay us for our wrong doing, but to curb our self-destructive impulses which, left unchecked, would destroy us. God’s judgment is God’s mercy though, like headstrong toddlers bent on running into the street, we see God’s stern intervention only as a malicious restraint on our willful freedom.
Paul reminds us in his second letter to the Church in Corinth that we are Christ’s ambassadors sent to proclaim reconciliation between God and humanity. We are the new people of God who are, as John of Patmos reminds us, made up of every tribe, language and nation. Reconciliation is the only way forward for the church and, I believe, for the nation and for the world. We cannot hope to rid ourselves of all the folks we don’t like. Twelve million undocumented immigrants, generations of descendants of slaves still smarting from the sting of racism, women steadfastly pushing with their gifts and abilities into what used to be a man’s world, gay, lesbian and transgendered persons seeking justice and legal protection for their families; angry white men who feel that their jobs, their culture and their very country is slipping out of their hands; we are all here to stay. There can be no future for America that does not include us all. Reconciliation is not an option. It is our only hope. We cannot afford to allow any obstacles to deter us from pursuing it. The pursuit of anything less is too horrible to contemplate.
Here’s a poem about the dreariness, resentment and joy of human connectedness by John Updike.
Just the thought of them makes your jawbone ache:
those turkey dinners, those holidays with
the air around the woodstove baked to a stupor,
and Aunt Lil’s tablecloth stained by her girlhood’s gravy.
A doggy wordless wisdom whimpers from
your uncles’ collected eyes; their very jokes
creak with genetic sorrow, a strain
of common heritable that hurts the gut.
Sheer boredom and fascination! A spidering
of chromosomes webs even the infants in
and holds us fast around the spread
of rotting food, of too-sweet pie.
The cousins buzz, the nephews crawl;
to love one’s self is to love them all.
Source, Collected Poems, (c. 1993 by John Updike, pub. by Alfred A. Knopf, Inc.). John Updike (1932-2009) was a prolific American author and poet. He grew up in Shillington, Pennsylvania. His early poems and fiction are grounded in the gritty industrial and cultural environment of the rust belt. His awards include the Pulitzer Prize for fiction, the American Book Award for fiction and the National Book Critics Circle Award for both fiction and criticism. You can learn more about John Updike and read more of his poetry at the Poetry Foundation website.
The name Malachi means “my messenger” in Hebrew. It was most likely a pseudo name derived from chapter 3:1 and given as the author of this prophetic book by a later editor. This prophet was active sometime around 500 to 450 B.C. after the Jews returned from Exile in Babylon and rebuilt the temple in Jerusalem. His concern is for proper maintenance of the temple cult and the worship practices of his people. Malachi castigates the priests for accepting sick and defective animals in sacrifice at the temple rather than animals “without blemish” as the Levitical laws required. Malachi 1:6-14. See, e.g., Leviticus 1:3; Leviticus 1:10. He condemns the men of the community for divorcing the “wife of your youth” (perhaps in order to obtain a newer model?). Malachi 2:13-16. There is a clear connection here between unfaithfulness to Israel’s covenant with her God and the unfaithfulness of Israelite men to their wives. Both are based on covenant promises. Offering animals unfit for consumption as offerings at the temple reflects contempt for God’s covenant with Israel just as cavalierly divorcing one’s wife of many years constitutes an egregious breach of faith on the human plain. There is no separation of the sacred from the secular. All of life is bound together by covenant promises.
In chapter 3, speaking on behalf of the Lord, Malachi declares: “Behold, I send my messenger to prepare the way before me.” Malachi 3:1. But this prophecy has a double edge, for “who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears?” Malachi 3:2. Like a refiner’s fire, this messenger will purify the priesthood so that the peoples’ offerings and worship will once again be pleasing to the Lord and invoke blessing rather than judgment. Malachi 3:3-4. It is against the backdrop of these oracles that the verses from our lesson must be read. The day of judgment that consumes the wicked is also the refining fire that will perfect the people of God.
This lesson serves as a reminder that salvation cannot come without judgment. Forgiveness does not benefit the sinner apart from the sinner’s repentance. Sanctification is the flip side of salvation by grace. Faith that does not transform is something less than faith. If one does not come away from an encounter with God full of stark terror or with a broken bone or with blinded eyes, then you have to wonder whether the encounter was with the God of Israel and the Father of Jesus Christ. Nobody comes away from a meeting with the living God unscathed. Yet, though God be ever so terrifying, God is nevertheless good. It is a measure of God’s compassion that God takes the trouble to judge us, refine us and resurrect us as new people.
The danger here is that we might be tempted to read this text as drawing the line between the righteous and the wicked prematurely. That was precisely the problem with much of the religious tradition that Jesus confronted in his ministry. Chief among the complaints against him was that he associated with “sinners.” E.g. Mark 2:15-17. We do well to remember that the line between righteousness and wickedness does not run along any international border, or between any racial, religious, ethnic or political dividing line. Rather, the line runs through each human heart which must be both judged and redeemed by the Word of the Lord.
This psalm of praise is an “enthronement psalm” celebrating the lordship of Israel’s God. The people are invited to sing a “new song” to the Lord echoing a nearly identical phrase in Isaiah 42:10 which introduces a song used in celebration of God’s coming to deliver Israel from captivity in Babylon. This similarity has led some commentators to conclude that the psalm is post-exilic. That might well be the case, but it seems to me a slender reed upon which to make a definitive decision on dating. The victories of the Lord celebrated in verses 1-3 could as easily refer to events connected with the Exodus. In the absence of reference to any specific historical event, the issue of dating must remain open.
Verse 6 makes clear that the “king” whose enthronement is celebrated here is the Lord. This, too, may well indicate a post-exilic time in which any king there might be would necessarily be a gentile ruler. The psalm would then be a bold assertion that the earth is under the sole jurisdiction of the Lord rather than any emperor or king asserting authority over the nations. If, however, this psalm dates back to the monarchic period of Israel’s history, it would testify to the prophetic insistence that even Israel’s king is finally subject to the reign of God.
Verses 4-8 extend the call to praise out to the whole earth, its peoples and all the forces of nature. All the earth is invited to “make a joyful noise to the Lord” with all manner of musical instruments. Vss. 4-6. The sea is ordered to “roar,” the floods to “clap” and the hills to “sing together for joy.” What is the great act of God evoking such cosmic celebration? The answer is given in verse 3 where the psalmist announces that God “has remembered his steadfast love and faithfulness to the house of Israel.” This faithfulness has been expressed in a victory handed to Israel that is witnessed by the whole earth. Vs. 3. Furthermore, Israel will not be the only beneficiary of God’s faithfulness. For this God comes to “judge the earth” and “the world” with righteousness, establishing “equity” for all peoples. Vs. 9
Whether this psalm was written during the monarchic period of Israel’s history when she was but a small player in a violent and dangerous geopolitical neighborhood or whether it was composed following the Babylonian Exile when Israel lived as a conquered people, there was and still is a huge gap between the psalmist’s bold assertions of God’s reign and the “reality” in which the people were living. As we will see in our gospel lesson, God’s people of every age are called to live as children under God’s reign in the midst of a world where many other hostile forces assert their lordship. Faith refuses to accept the “reality” of the present world as the only one or the final one. God’s reign is the only real kingship and will endure after “crowns and thrones” have perished and after all other kingdoms have “waxed and waned.” “Onward, Christian Soldiers,” The Lutheran Hymnal, # 658.
The relationship between the form and substance of II Thessalonians and I Thessalonians has led most commentators to believe that II Thessalonians was composed by a Christian leader writing to a later generation in the name of Paul and his colleagues. However that might be, this second letter echoes Paul’s admonitions to the Thessalonians in the first letter not to concern themselves with “times” and “seasons” for the triumphal return of Christ. I Thessalonians 5:1-11. Here, too, Paul urges the church “not to be quickly shaken in mind or excited, either by spirit or by word or by letter purporting to come from us to the effect that the day of the Lord has come.” Vs 2. He then continues to discuss the appearance of “the man of lawlessness” and the “rebellion” preceding the second coming. This particular section of scripture has given rise to much speculation and is one of the texts that appears to have inspired the Left Behind series. Paul (or the anonymous author) does not explain who the “man of lawlessness” is, nor does he say much about the force that is “restraining him now” discussed in the omitted verses 6-12. Evidently, he assumes that the readers know perfectly well what he was talking about and they probably did. We, alas, have no clue. That is what happens when you read someone else’s mail. You might also want to read the summary article on enterthebible.org by Matt Skinner, Associate Professor of New Testament for some good background on this brief letter.
In today’s lesson Paul addresses a perennial problem for the church. What to do with slackers in the Body of Christ? It appears that there were folks in the Thessalonian church taking advantage of the church’s hospitality and charity. Perhaps the congregation practiced common ownership of goods similar to the Jerusalem church in the Book of Acts. See Acts 4:32-37. Under this “honor system” the temptation to game the system runs high. See Acts 5:1-11. Or it might be that this church had an order of widows similar to that described in Paul’s first letter to Timothy under which elderly widows with no family to care for them received sustenance from the church in return for their commitment to minister to the needs of the saints. It seems, however, that the order was becoming a dumping ground for unwanted grannies and a refuge for younger women capable of gainful employment. I Timothy 5:3-16. In any event, it is clear that the church in Thessalonica is beset by folks who are taking far more than they give.
This problem is comparable to the dilemma presented by drifters who show up at our doors with a heart wrenching problem that cash and only cash can solve. It is perhaps similar to members of our churches who feel entitled to its benefits, but feel no responsibility to support it. They show up when someone needs to be baptized, confirmed, married or buried. You might see them on Christmas or Easter. You don’t see them at any other time, but they still think of the church as “theirs.” It is easy to share Paul’s annoyance with these slackers and I am sometimes tempted to call them out on their crass abuses of our ministry. But I never do. My reluctance is twofold. I am glad to see anyone come within the influence of the Body of Christ because I see there an opportunity to exercise hospitality and witness to the gospel.
Additionally, I cannot help but feel that the church itself is partly responsible for creating this problem. Back in the days when everyone went to church, evangelism (such that it was) consisted of little more than consumer marketing. Because we assumed that everyone was looking for a church, we advertised our church as the best in town. We touted our air conditioned buildings; our youth programs; our Sunday Schools and varied activities for seniors. Even when our outreach was specifically religious, we sold our faith as a consumer good. The trouble with consumer advertising is that it only draws consumers and consumers only consume. When we ask them to contribute, they balk-and rightly so. They were lured into our midst with the promise of freebies. Then we go and stick an offering plate under their nose, ask them to give up an evening every month to be on a committee or spend their Saturday raking our leaves. It’s a classic bait and switch.
Jesus did not market to consumers. Even to those who sought him out, he warned them that they might be sleeping on the ground or even dying on a cross should they follow him. He had no use for people who put even their family commitments ahead of discipleship. Jesus never sought mass appeal. He avoided it like the plague. Like the United States Marines, Jesus was looking for a few good people. He wanted disciples, not members. He spent the years of his ministry working intensely with twelve people and that remained his focus even when it meant turning the crowds away. Paul’s ultimatum might sound rather severe: “Whoever will not work, let them not eat.” Vs. 10. We do well to remember that Paul is not a governmental agent denying food stamps to hungry families. He is an apostle speaking to people who are under the false impression that the church is a club designed to meet the needs of its members rather than the Body of Christ devoted to the work of preaching, reconciliation and peacemaking. For their own sake and for the sake of the church these slackers need to be called to account.
Now that we are living in a post Christian age where there no longer is a huge contingent of church shoppers out there to whom we can market church membership, we can perhaps find our way back to the good work of making disciples.
This section of the gospel, like apocalyptic literature generally, has been subject to all manner of end times prognostication. With the arguable exception of “great signs from heaven” in vs 11, the natural and political traumas described have been regular features of every age. Consequently, it has always been possible to employ these scriptures to convince gullible persons with short historical memories that the end has in fact drawn near. Careful reading of the text reveals, however, that Jesus’ point is precisely the opposite. Neither the destruction of the temple nor any of the geopolitical fallout signal the coming of the Son of Man. Jesus is careful to point out that the cosmic signs heralding that final chapter will be impossible to miss. Luke 21:25-28. The disciples should not imagine that the ordinary traumas of war, pestilence and famine constitute signs of the end. Vss. 10-11.
New Testament Scholarship has sometimes viewed the entire Gospel of Luke and its sequel, the Book of Acts, as a response to dashed expectations of a church that had been looking for the imminent return of Jesus in glory. The German New Testament scholar Hans Conzelmann wrote extensively on the Gospel of Luke arguing that Luke changed the emphasis in Jesus’ teaching from an expectation that the coming of the Son of Man was imminent to a focus on the redemptive presence of God’s saving work in history through the church. This, he maintained, was Luke’s answer to a theological crisis in the church occasioned by the delay of Christ’s return as expected. That would account for the emphasis in Sunday’s gospel reading on the indefinite period of testimony required of the disciples between the resurrection and Christ’s return. Conzelmann’s thinking has been quite influential in shaping New Testament scholarship generally.
Frankly, I think Conzelmann was wrong. I am not convinced that Jesus thought the end of the world or the consummation of God’s kingdom was imminent. I believe rather that Jesus understood the kingdom as having come in its fullness through his ministry and that he invited his disciples to join him in living under its jurisdiction. I also think he understood that life under the reign of God would take the form of the cross until the “coming of the Son of Man,” the timing of which is known to God alone. I am unconvinced that the church anticipated the immediate return of Christ. Though mindful that the Son of Man would come “like a thief in the night” and that watchfulness was important, I believe the church well understood that Israel waited 400 years for liberation from Egypt; wandered for 40 years in the wilderness before entering the Promised Land and spent 70 years in exile before returning home from Babylon. Though perhaps tempted by “end times” hysteria (as is our own age), the church understood from the get go that God will not be rushed. The church also understood that God can be trusted to supply her with whatever might be required to complete her journey-however long that journey might take. In short, there never was a “crisis of faith” in the early church over the supposed delay of Jesus’ return necessitating a re-write of the church’s preaching or self-understanding.
Patience and endurance have always been central to the church’s life of faith. These virtues are learned under the yolk of oppression when no hope of liberation is in sight; when one is wandering in the wilderness without a map; or while one lives as a captive foreigner in a hostile, alien culture. These virtues might not seem so very important when the direction is clear, the way ahead is smooth and the goal is in sight. But when you are waiting for all the weapons of war to be beaten into plowshares, for a world in which each person can sit under his or her own fig tree living without fear, for the blind to see, the lame to walk, the hungry to be fed and every tear to be wiped from every eye, for that you need a truck load of endurance. It is that for which I pray to help me wait faithfully for Jesus’ triumphal return and “live through what is temporary without losing what is eternal.”
What the disciples should be preparing for is an indefinite time in which they are to live as children of their Heavenly Father in a world hostile to his reign. They can expect persecution from the government, from their fellow countrymen and even from members of their own families. Vs. 12. The disciples must be prepared to give their testimony and may do so with confidence as Jesus will give them “a mouth and wisdom which none of [their] adversaries will be able to withstand or contradict.” Vs. 15. Though the “end” may not be imminent, the kingdom surely is-and the world’s opposition to it as well. The faithful disciple can therefore assume that tribulation will be the status quo. Nevertheless, such tribulation is not to be met with fear and foreboding. While the rest of the world is running for cover, disciples of Jesus are invited to hold their heads high in hope. They understand their trials to be not death-throws, but birth pangs.
Some New Testament scholars have practically made a career of dissecting this text and trying to figure out where the gospel writers got their material, what the material looked like before they wove it into their gospel narratives and what different meaning (if any) these supposedly independent pieces might have had in the context where they were originally composed. The fancy name for that is “redaction criticism.” In the case of this particular gospel lesson, it is commonly held that Luke relied upon Mark 13 (the “Little Apocalypse”) in composing these verses. The similarities between the two gospels at this point of intersection are striking. But there are also significant differences leading to a split of opinion over whether Luke may have relied upon other sources in addition to Mark. Marshall, I. Howard, Commentary on Luke, New International Greek Testament Commentary (c. 1978, The Paternoster Press, Ltd.) p. 755. There is also a good deal of scholarly argument over whether Mark relied upon a tract circulating during the Jewish War of 70 A.C.E. Ibid. 761. That war ended with Rome’s conquest of Jerusalem and the destruction of the temple. It is not altogether inconceivable that such written oracles warning of the impending disaster and seeking to interpret its significance were in existence at that time or that Mark might have relied upon one of them in composing his Little Apocalypse. Yet the fact remains that no document of this kind has ever been identified. Thus, the suggestion that either Mark or Luke relied upon such a document is merely speculative. At least that is how I see it. Bottom line? Whatever may or may not have happened along the way in formation of the gospels might be of academic interest, but as far as I am concerned it is not particularly significant. I preach from the gospel as it is, not from what somebody else tells me it might have looked like in some earlier form.