Archive for December, 2016
FIRST SUNDAY OF CHRISTMAS
PRAYER OF THE DAY: O Lord God, you know that we cannot place our trust in our own powers. As you protected the infant Jesus, so defend us and all the needy from harm and adversity, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.
Just last week John the Evangelist delivered to us a lyrical recitation of God’s Word becoming flesh. This week Matthew the Evangelist delivers a narrative portrayal of precisely what that means. We get a close look at what John was talking about when he told us that “he came to his own people and his own would not receive him.” God is staking everything on a baby born into a world where life is cheap, where pity must not cloud decisions made for the sake of national security, where there is no truly safe place. That is the Christmas Story in a nutshell.
As the beneficiary of white male privilege, I didn’t grow up reading the Christmas Story in that way. I have been pretty thoroughly brainwashed by images of a safe, dray and cozy little manger with clean hay, gentle animals and well-washed shepherds. The manger I grew up with was not a rude and forbidding place at all. It was a comfortable suite warmed by the light of the star overhead and sheltered by angels. All was calm, all was bright. Nothing was scary.
It is precisely because I don’t experience the world as a dangerous place that I have to struggle against the heresy of progressivism. My people lament that, for the first time since the great depression, the current generation of American young people cannot expect to live better than their parents. Such a complaint could only come from among the privileged, those of us who grew up believing that the world is becoming a progressively better place; that every year is supposed to bring a raise and a bonus; that each newly manufactured i-phone will be better than the last. I don’t see the world from the perspective of those who, on their best day, see nothing in their future but bare survival.
Of course, I understand in a cerebral sort of way that I could easily die any given day of the week on New Jersey Route 4 as I make my way down to the church. I know there is a possibility that I might have a brain aneurism waiting to blow at any second. A few close brushes with near catastrophe on the road have given me brief glimpses into the existence people in Aleppo know as everyday life. Most of the time, however, I am blissfully unaware of my fragileness, my extreme vulnerability. Most of the time, I am not consciously living as though I were at risk. Most of the time, my comfortable position of privilege blinds me to my own vulnerability and hardens me toward those who know it all too well.
That’s a problem because the Messiah lives and breathes among the vulnerable. He was, after all, a child born to a homeless couple in a stable. He was a child of political refugees fleeing across the border into Egypt from the sword of a hostile government. Jesus was a child born into a people living under military occupation. He was sentenced to death and executed as a criminal. Among the oppressed, among the vulnerable, among the least of the human family-this is where the Word becomes flesh. For this reason, he is frequently invisible to those of us who know only privilege. His proclamation of good news to the poor fills us with dread rather than hope because we can see no further than what we stand to lose if he is right. For those of us whose lives are sheltered in privilege that is maintained at the expense of the rest of the world, the Christmas Story-the real one-kind of stinks.
Or does it? What if the privileged life we fear losing is not worth the efforts we are making to save it? What if the cost of protecting what we have with gated communities, locked doors, advanced alarm systems and elaborate surveillance protocols is robbing us blind? What if the fear of losing our stuff exceeds and spoils whatever enjoyment we get out of having it? What if you really could have Christ be at the center of your Christmas because you were no longer under the pressure to buy the latest gifts, put on the most elaborate feast and figure out how you will pay for it all when it’s over? What if we finally discovered that the only thing we really have to lose is our bondage to a materialistic and self-centered existence that is choking the last vestige of humanity out of us? What if we learned to see in the face of the poor, not the eyes of envy staring greedily at all we have, but the invitation of Jesus to care for him as generously as he cares for us?
The good news of Christmas for those of us who live in privilege is that, as mean, fearful and insensitive as we have become, the Messiah has come for us as well. Even now he is living on our streets, in refugee camps throughout the world, in our prisons and in our shelters. He is here. Emmanuel. God with us. May the Christmas narratives give us eyes to see him and hearts to embrace him.
Here’s a poem by Denise Levertov about the Word becoming flesh.
It’s when we face for a moment
the worst our kind can do, and shudder to know
the taint in our own selves, that awe
cracks the mind’s shell and enters the heart:
not to a flower, not to a dolphin,
to no innocent form
but to this creature vainly sure
it and no other is god-like, God
(out of compassion for our ugly
failure to evolve) entrusts,
as guest, as brother,
Denise Levertov (1923–1997) never received a formal education. Nevertheless, she created a highly regarded body of poetry that earned her recognition as one of America’s most respected poets. Her father, Paul Philip Levertov, was a Russian Jew who converted to Christianity and subsequently moved to England where he became an Anglican minister. Levertov grew up in a household surrounded by books and people talking about them in many languages. During World War II, Levertov pursued nurse’s training and spent three years as a civilian nurse at several hospitals in London. Levertov came to the United States in 1948, after marrying American writer Mitchell Goodman. During the 1960s Levertov became a staunch critic of the Vietnam war, a topic addressed in many of her poems of that era. Levertov died of lymphoma at the age of seventy-four. You can read more about Denise Levertov and sample more of her poetry at the Poetry Foundation Website.
This passage is the opening section of a psalm of intercession, the complete text of which is Isaiah 63:7-64:12. The entire psalm should be read in order to get the context of the verses making up our lesson. These verses constitute the beginning of a historical prologue that runs to verse 9. They recall Israel’s deliverance from Egypt and God’s leadership throughout her long journey to Canaan. Verses 10-19 acknowledge that, in contrast to God’s faithfulness to Israel, Israel has been less than faithful to her God. Indeed, “We have become like those over whom thou hast never ruled, like those who are not called by thy name.” vs. 19. The psalmist/prophet nevertheless appeals to God’s mercy and steadfast faithfulness to the covenant promises, confident that this God’s longsuffering love for his people remains even now. “Yet, O Lord, thou art our Father; we are the clay, and thou the potter; we are the work of thy hand. Be not exceedingly angry, O Lord, and remember not iniquity forever. Behold, consider, we are all they people.” Isaiah 64:8. Israel always understood what is expressed in the New Testament letter of James: “Mercy triumphs over judgment.” James 2:13. Therefore, Israel could be as insistent that God comply with his covenant promises as she was candid about her own covenant failures. God remains faithful even when his people are not.
This wonderful psalm comes to us from the third section of Isaiah composed by a prophet speaking to the Jews in Palestine following their return from Babylonian exile in the latter half of the 6th Century. They were resettling themselves in the land and seeking to rebuild their lives and their ruined city under extremely difficult conditions. The prayer makes clear to these people that their own unfaithfulness is largely responsible for the difficult plight in which they now find themselves. Nevertheless, they must also understand that while God punishes Israel’s unfaithfulness, he does not abandon Israel or cease to be faithful to his own covenant obligations. Therefore, Israel may indeed pray for and expect God to be merciful and lead her through these difficult days as God has always done for his chosen people. The bleak circumstances should therefore not blind the people of God to the promise of a future wrought in yet further acts of salvation.
This psalm is one of a group that begins and ends with an expression of praise: Hallelujah or “Praise YAHWEH.” (Psalms 146-150) It is beautifully structured. The injunctions to praise begin with the heavens, the angels, the sun, moon and starts descending to the earth and its creatures. The forces of nature, geographical features (mountains and hills) and plant life all are called to join in the choir of praise to God. All people from mighty kings, to slave girls to small children are drawn into this cosmic hymn of praise to the Creator. Finally, the call to praise is directed to “the people of Israel who are near to him.” The perfect symmetry of this psalm is further illustrated by its final focus on this one particular people who, though at the narrowest end of the spectrum, are nonetheless “near” to the almighty Creator God.
This psalm is pure praise. It seeks nothing from God. It is not offered up in thanksgiving for any particular act of goodness or salvation on God’s part. The psalmist praises God because that is what creatures, all creatures, even “inanimate” creatures do. It is what we are created for according the Westminster Shorter Catechism. The longer I live, the more I am convinced that this might well be so and that perhaps a major source of our misery stems from our failure to understand it. The universe was spoken into existence by God and so its very existence is an act of praise. Praise is therefore nothing other than going with the grain of the universe. It is recognizing that joy is found only as we learn to sing our little piece in tune with the rest of the choir. Only then does our voice amount to anything worth listening to. If we were not so terribly absorbed in pursuing whatever it is we think will make us happy and accomplishing what we believe to be important and establishing our own legacy, we might not mind so much that we are after all “grass that withers and flowers that fade.”
Psalm 148 is included in the song of praise sung by the three young men thrown into the fiery furnace by King Nebuchadnezzar in the 3rd Chapter of Daniel. Don’t look for it in your Bible, though. It is found only in the Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures (known as the Septuagint) and is omitted by most English translations that rely mainly on the Hebrew texts. It may also interest you Lutherans to know that this Apocryphal song is included in its entirety at page 120 of The Lutheran Hymnal, the official hymn book of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod from 1940 to the late 1970s.
It is difficult to date this psalm. Most scholars view it as a post-exilic psalm composed for worship in the Jerusalem temple rebuilt following the return from exile that began in 538 B.C.E. That does not preclude, however, the possibility that the author was working from the text or oral tradition of a much older tradition from the period of the Judean monarchy.
For my take on Hebrews, see my post of December 25, 2016. You might also want to take a look at the summary article of Craig R. Koester, Professor of New Testament at Luther Seminary on Enterthebible.org. Suffice to say that I believe the author of this letter is striving to demonstrate to a Christian audience traumatized by the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem how Jesus now fulfills the mediation function of the temple cult and its priesthood. This trauma was shared by the rest of the Jewish community (from which followers of Jesus were at this point inseparable). For what ultimately became modern Judaism, the Torah (in the broadest sense of the word) became the mediating agent of God’s redemptive presence. Worship in the Synagogue therefore revolved around the learning, study and application of Torah to the life of the community. For disciples of Jesus, Jesus himself was the mediator. He animated his resurrected Body, the church with his life giving Spirit made present through the church’s preaching and communal (Eucharistic) meals.
Here the author of Hebrews points out that Jesus fulfills his priestly office through offering himself in his full humanity. The sacrificial language permeating the letter can be off putting if we adopt the medieval notion that God needs a blood sacrifice in order to forgive our sins. This understanding (or misunderstanding) is common and underlies the theory of “substitutionary atonement,” namely, the belief that Jesus’ crucifixion was God’s act of justified punishment for human sin absorbed by Jesus so that we can avoid it. That is not how sacrifice was understood in the Hebrew Scriptures. Sacrifices were more often than not offered in thanksgiving. Moreover, even when offered to atone for sin, they were not seen as “payment.” Rather, they afforded the worshiper an opportunity to share in a holy a meal where reconciliation and forgiveness could be experienced and celebrated. In the one instance where sin is transferred to a sacrificial animal (Day of Atonement), the animal is not killed, but sent out into the wilderness. Leviticus 16:1-22. Clearly, God does not need to kill anyone in order to forgive us.
Rightly understood, the language of sacrifice makes good sense. The death of Jesus was a sacrifice in the sense that loving another person deeply always involves a sacrifice of self for the wellbeing of the loved one. That is particularly so where the loved one is deeply involved in self-destructive behavior and resistant to your efforts to help him or her. Parents who walk with their children through the dark valley of addiction know better than anyone else how deeply painful love can be and how much must sometimes be sacrificed. So also it cost God dearly to love a world in rebellion against him. When God embraced us with human arms we crucified him. Notwithstanding, God continues to love the world through Jesus’ resurrected (though wounded and broken) Body. Such is the sacrifice that is Jesus.
As throughout his entire gospel, Matthew gives us a panoply of direct references, allusions and echoes of the Hebrew Scriptures. The instances in both last week’s reading and this Sunday’s lesson in which Joseph is warned and guided by dreams remind us of another Joseph whose dreams ultimately led him to Egypt. See Genesis 37-50. Of course, the parallel between Moses’ escape from the Egyptian Pharaoh’s genocidal policies toward the Hebrew slaves and Jesus’ escape from Herod’s slaughter of the innocents is also hard to miss. Jesus’ time spent in Egypt parallels Israel’s painful sojourn in that land of bondage and his return to Palestine shadows Israel’s Exodus from Egypt and return to the land promised to Abraham and Sarah.
Matthew cites Jeremiah 31:15:
A voice is heard in Ramah,
lamentation and bitter weeping.
Rachel is weeping for her children;
she refuses to be comforted for her children,
because they are no more.
Jeremiah is speaking here about the ten tribes forming the Northern Kingdom of Israel that fell to Assyria in about 721 B.C.E. Much of the population was carried into exile and so the land, personified by Rachel-mother of the northern “Joseph” tribes-weeps for her exiled children. The brutality of Herod, the so called “King of the Jews,” is contrasted with that of the hated Assyrian Empire. It should be noted that Herod was not a Jew and there were few Jews who would have recognized him as their legitimate king. He was, in fact, an Edomite. Edom, you may recall from prior posts, sided with the Babylonians and took part in their sack of Jerusalem in 587 B.C.E. Moreover, he was appointed King of Judea by the Jews’ hated Roman overlords. Though he sought to win the affection of his Jewish subjects through building a temple in Jerusalem that surpassed even Solomon’s, Herod was still hated by all but those in the highest echelons of power who benefited from his corrupt reign.
I believe that Matthew is consciously juxtaposing Herod, “King of the Jews” to Jesus who will also receive this title, though only as a cruel jest. The king who hangs onto his throne by means of dealing death is contrasted with the king who raises the dead. The king who rules through violence is contrasted with the king who renounces violence. The king who by desperate and despicable acts of cruelty seeks to hang onto his life is contrasted with the king who pours out his life for the people he loves. We are asked to decide which king really reigns. God’s verdict is expressed in Jesus’ resurrection. Herod is still dead. Jesus lives. That says it all.
Most scholars question the historicity of this account of the slaughter of the innocents in Bethlehem. They point out that Herod died in 4 B.C.E.-before Jesus is supposed to have been born. The birth date historically assigned to Jesus is mostly arbitrary, however. We cannot say with any certainty precisely when Jesus was born and a four year discrepancy is hardly conclusive. Although there is no other historical record of this terrible event, that too is not necessarily dispositive. Herod was well known for his paranoia and brutality. The appearance of an astronomical phenomenon accompanied by rumors that the descendent to arise from the City of David foretold by the scriptures had been born would surely be sufficient to trouble this tyrant who in his later years became increasingly paranoid and fearful of losing his throne. Herod’s cruel and inhuman command to murder all infants two years and under would hardly have been out of character for a man capable of killing his wife of many years and his own children. In a period during which the Roman Empire was still smarting from civil war, repressing revolutionary uprisings and seeking to crush banditry, it would hardly be surprising that a tragedy of only local significance should fail to find its way into these blood soaked annals of history. That said, it is also clear that Matthew employs this event as a literary device designed to illuminate the person and work of Jesus through parallels with Hebrew scriptural people and events. Thus, we ought not to obsess over whether and to what extent the slaughter of the innocents correlates with any particular historically verifiable event.
PRAYER OF THE DAY: Almighty God, you gave us your only Son to take on our human nature and to illumine the world with your light. By your grace adopt us as your children and enlighten us with your Spirit, through Jesus Christ, our Redeemer and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.
This post is woefully late by my standards. Blame it on the Christmas crunch or the fatigue of a pastor who has written so many sermons, articles, letters and memos over the last couple of weeks that he becomes ill at the very notion of writing a single syllable more-or both. This time of year I see any number of bumper stickers calling for Christ to be put back into Christmas. Yet, often as not, I find them on cars parked at the mall. There are just too many cultural expectations to get Christmas cards/blogs/e-communications out, gifts purchased and the house ready for guests. Of course, for us clergy types there are all manner of worship services and programmatic tasks to attend to. Christmas isn’t supposed to be this way and we all know it. But unless you are able to escape to the wilderness leaving your cell phone behind, there is no resisting the tidal wave of busyness that overtakes us this time of year.
Thankfully, just as we cannot force Christ into Christmas, we cannot entirely keep him out either. Jesus is stubbornly resistant to our efforts at marginalizing him. The God we worship became human for keeps. That means God is with us (Emmanuel) in our aching heads, our blurry eyes and our frayed nerves. I am confronted with Jesus at every turn, calling me back to sanity, challenging my distorted priorities and inviting me to take his easy yolk and gentle instruction. It is good to know that when I finally collapse under the weight of my own self-imposed burdens, Jesus will be there to catch me.
Wishing you all God’s richest blessings and a measure of true peace during this Nativity season,
For a brief but thorough overview of the book of Isaiah, see the Summary Article by Fred Gaiser, Professor of Old Testament at Luther Seminary, St. Paul, MN published at enterthebible.org. Here it is enough to say that these words were spoken by the prophet to the Judean exiles living in Babylon. The conquest of Babylon by Cyrus the Persian opened up the possibility for the exiles to return to their homeland in Palestine. The prophet sees in this development the hand of God at work creating a new future for Judah. The exiles are naturally skeptical. Most have built new lives for themselves in the foreign land. Those born in Babylon know of Israel only through the legends and stories told by their elders. The prophet’s task is to make his fellow exiles see the glorious new future God is offering them. To that end, the prophet employs some of the most beautiful poetic language in the scriptures. He compares the opportunity for return from Babylon to the Exodus from Egypt. He promises that, just as God provided miraculous protection and provision for the Israelites as they traveled through the wilderness from Egypt to the land of Canaan, so God will shelter and protect the exiles as they travel once again to that promised land from captivity in Babylon.
The glad tidings spoken of here is Cyrus’ decree allowing the Jewish exiles to return to Judah. The verses describe the anticipated jubilation of the remaining inhabitants of Jerusalem and the surrounding territory when that news reaches them. The poem portrays watchmen on at their posts sighting the messengers bringing word of the new development and singing for joy. Vs. 8. They immediately recognize in the edict of Cyrus the hand of God working salvation and thus demonstrating that God’s favor has returned to Zion once again. The ruins of Jerusalem break into song at this new manifestation of God’s salvation that will be known to the ends of the earth. Vss. 9-10.
The trouble with this poem is that we know from subsequent chapters in Isaiah and other scriptures that the return to Judah turned out not to be the jubilant and triumphant event for which the prophet hoped. It was a difficult, slow and frustrating process with numerous ups and downs, many false starts. The rebuilding of the temple was accomplished only with the strong, insistent and sometimes threatening encouragement of the prophets Haggai and Zechariah. The restoration of Jerusalem faced violent threats and frustrating bureaucratic delays. Life back in the promised land was not all milk and honey.
Yet the people of Judah did not discard these prophetic words, but recorded and treasured them. Instead of concluding that the prophet had failed to deliver, that his promises were empty lies, that the efforts to return and rebuild had been wasted, they continued to look for the fulfillment of the prophet’s words. They continued to hold them up during dark times looking for encouragement and direction. The words, they maintained, were true-even if not necessarily for this time. There was no doubt in the minds of Jews for whom the prophet’s words became scripture that they would find their fulfillment one day.
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.
As most of you know by now, I do not view this epistle as an assertion of Christian superiority over Judaism. Instead, I believe that the letter was written to explain the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem in 70 C.E. and to deal with the disappointment of some disciples who might have been expecting that event to usher in the new age. The destruction of the Temple was a severe blow to all Jews, including those who followed Jesus. According to the Book of Acts, the earliest believers worshiped at the temple. Its destruction meant the end of a sacrificial cult that came to define much of what it meant to be a Jew. The temple was an institution Jesus attempted to purify. We can see from the gospels that many of his followers understood its destruction as a sign of the inbreaking of God’s reign. In short, the loss of the temple in Jerusalem was a traumatic event for all Jews. Most dealt with this catastrophe by turning to the Torah as their center of faith and life. Disciples of Jesus saw in Christ “a new temple not built with hands.” John 2:19-22. So the objective of the author of Hebrews is not to discredit Judaism with Christianity, but rather to illustrate how life ordered by faith in Jesus fulfills the functions of the temple cult and supersedes it in the same way Torah observance eventually eclipsed the cultic temple traditions in Judaism.
The brief introductory words constituting our lesson for Sunday set forth the basic proposition on which the rest of the letter will build: Though in the past God spoke through the mouths and pens of prophets, today he speaks to the church through his Son. The Son is qualitatively different not only from human prophets, but also from angelic beings who occasionally speak and act on God’s behalf. His person reflects God’s glory and God’s very nature is imprinted on his life, work and speech. His placement at God’s right hand is not to be confused with any particular locality. Just as God has God’s hand in everything, so the Son’s agency permeates creation and upholds it by his word of power. He makes “purification for sins” (vs. 3) which formerly was the role of the temple cult.
The temple cult has been woefully misunderstood in Christian circles due largely to our imposing upon it the medieval concept of “substitutionary atonement.” This is the notion that God needs somehow to be compensated or recompensed for our sins. Unfortunately for us, we have fallen so far behind on our debt for sin and so much interest has accrued that we can no more hope to pay it off than can a minimum wage earner hope to get out from under his or her credit card debt. Jesus takes the punishment we deserve and thus pays the debt. He is our “substitute.”
The temple cult did not operate on any such theological presumption. Its sacrificial rites were not concerned half so much with satisfying debt as restoring relationships. Stripped of their elaborate ceremonial trappings, sacrifices were meals. Eating together provides the context for reconciliation, strengthening community and reinforcing confidence in God’s covenant promises. Sacrifices made at the temple were not intended to “buy God off,” but to create an environment in which confession, forgiveness and reconciliation can take place. It is precisely this function of the temple that Jesus is said to have assumed. His once and for all sacrifice has permanently opened the way to communion with God and with our fellow disciples.
Rather than relating the story of Jesus’ birth, John gives us a poem about the miracle of the Incarnation filled with many opposite, contrasting and complementary images that will be developed and brought into sharper focus throughout the following narrative. Light and darkness; being and nothingness; knowledge and ignorance; belief and unbelief; birth from flesh and birth from God. All of these images and terms will find further expression and deeper meaning as the story of Jesus unfolds. For now, though, they swim about together in the rich primordial soil of John’s imaginative lyrics. We must wait for them to ooze out and show themselves for what they truly are.
John begins with the declaration that the Word was both with God in the beginning and was God. This is entirely consistent with the Hebrew Scriptures which speak of God’s Word as “coming” and “accomplishing.” See, e.g., Jeremiah 1:2; Isaiah 55:11. God is not merely as good as God’s Word. God is God’s Word. Yet even though the same as God, the Word is somehow distinguishable from God. So far, I think, our Jewish and Muslim sisters and brothers might agree with John.
But then John goes on to tell us something remarkable. “The Word became flesh.” Vs. 14. The Word became a human person such that the invisible God is now visible. Here, I believe, is where the church’s confession parts company with our Abrahamic sisters and brothers. If we are going to say that God has a Son, it seems to follow inevitably that there must be at least two gods. Yet John (along with the rest of the New Testament writers) maintains that God is one. The church has struggled with this enormously counterintuitive confession from the onset, rejecting numerous more plausible alternative understandings. At the heart of the Incarnation stands this one scandalous truth: God is visible and God is human. The Incarnation was not a temporary state into which God entered for a single lifetime. It was not merely a clever disguise. In Jesus, God became irrevocably human and remains so. That is why John can say in his First Letter, “If anyone says, ‘I love God,’ and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen, cannot love God whom he has not seen.” I John 4:20.
The inescapable conclusion is that to rend the flesh of another human being is to rend the flesh of God. To ridicule, excoriate or insult another human being is to blaspheme God. God cannot be harmed or insulted by the removal of a crèche or a cross from public lands, disrespect for the Bible or desecration of a sanctuary. Only by harming the persons created to bear God’s image and for whom the Son of God died can God’s self be injured. When that becomes clear, it is equally clear by how far much of what passes for Christianity these days misses the mark. Something is seriously out of whack when we grieve more over the removal of humanly designed plastic figures of Jesus from the park than we do for the homeless people created by God in God’s image who are regularly driven out of such venues.
One of the most significant words in this section is that word “dwelt” or “lived” as the New Revised Standard Version has it. Vs. 14. Both translations fall short of the actual Greek word “skaiano” which means literally to “tent with” or “tabernacle with.” The word conjures up images of the tent of presence in which God dwelt among the people of Israel on their journey to the Promised Land. This powerful image of Jesus as God’s presence gets lost in the English translation! The same word is used in the Book of Revelation which describes the final state of things in these words: “Behold, the dwelling [skaiano] of God is with men. He will dwell [scaiano] with them and they shall be his people, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe away every tear from their eyes and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning nor crying nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.” Revelation 21:3-4.
Verses 6-8 dealing with John the Baptist appear to interrupt the flow of John’s hymn to the Word, causing many commentators to view them as an interpolation into the original text. See, Brown, Raymond E., The Gospel according to John, The Anchor Bible (c. 1966 by Doubleday) p 21-22. However, as Brown points out, “when a scholar rather arbitrarily forms a set of presuppositions about the original import of the poem…and then proceeds to eliminate lines that do not agree with his hypothesis, this criterion becomes very subjective.” Ibid. at 22. It seems to me that regardless of whether John is working with a poem or hymn that had an independent literary existence apart from the gospel, the distinction of John’s ministry from that of Jesus was so critical to the New Testament church that it could hardly have been a mere afterthought for John the Evangelist. Thus, I would credit the evangelist with such editing (if any) to the prologue’s text. Like the other gospels, John seeks from the beginning to contextualize the work of John within the larger story of Jesus’ mission. Marsh, John, Saint John, The Pelican New Testament Commentaries (c. 1968 by John Marsh, pub. by Penguin Books) pp. 104-105.
There is far more that could be said about this section of John. Nearly every word in John’s gospel is freighted with meaning that accumulates like the mass of a snowball rolling downhill. For those of us who will be observing the Feast of Epiphany on Sunday, January 8th, the contrast between light and darkness is particularly meaningful.
THIRD SUNDAY OF ADVENT
PRAYER OF THE DAY: Stir up the wills of all who look to you, Lord God, and strengthen our faith in your coming, that, transformed by grace, we may walk in your way; through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.
John the Baptist is languishing in Herod’s prison for speaking truth to power. There is often a price to be paid for such audacity. In three decades of ministry I have lost members in all three of the parishes I served because I said things they didn’t want to hear. I have also lost friends and I have relatives who no longer wish to speak to me on that account. That is painful. I will forever be asking myself whether I could have spoken more clearly, with greater temperance or with a higher degree of gentleness. Yet I cannot regret having spoken the truth, however ineptly I may have put it. Remaining silent is never an option. Those who fail to speak when the flag of falsehood flies unchallenged are as guilty as the ones who hoisted the banner in the first place. Hard truths must be spoken regardless of how they will be received and in spite of the consequences for the truth teller.
Of course, the discomfort I have occasionally experienced in truth speaking pales in comparison with John’s losing his freedom and, ultimately, his head. I have never received a threat of death or bodily injury for anything I have ever said. I would like to believe that is because we live in a society that values freedom of expression. But perhaps it is because I have failed to speak the truth as frequently and forcefully as I ought. I know that there have been many times when I failed to speak the truth at all in order to avoid far lesser consequences than John’s. I often wonder whether I would find the courage to speak truthfully in circumstances under which the truth would cost me dearly. Am I ready to go to prison for the truth or even to death? I fervently pray that I will never have to learn the answer to these questions!
One needs to take care in prophetic truth telling. My ability to recognize and articulate the truth is clouded by my own biases, prejudices and ignorance. Because I view the world through the eyes of white male privilege, I am sometimes blind to injuries and injustices taking place under my nose. Moreover, what at first blush appears to be an obvious case of injustice might become a good deal more complicated and nuanced in light of all the facts-some of which I might not be aware. Furthermore, the truth is more than the sum of the facts. Paul admonishes us to “speak the truth in love.” Ephesians 4:15. In a sense, that is redundant because, unless spoken in love, the truth is not really the truth. This is not to say that the truth cannot be spoken passionately, even angrily. But it must always be spoken with the ultimate intent to heal and reconcile. Words spoken to incite hatred, appeal to prejudice or foment violence are never true. Never.
In this age where civil discourse has broken down, arguments have given way to insults, racist ideology is making its way back into the mainstream and sexual violence by powerful predatory males is finding acceptance, the need for truthful speech is more urgent than ever before. The ideological demons need to be named and exorcised by the truth as we know it in Christ Jesus. Silence in such a time as this is tantamount to lying. Here’s a ruthlessly truthful yet compassionate poem about America which, though published in 1925, could have been written today.
Shine, Perishing Republic
While this America settles in the mould of its vulgarity, heavily thickening
And protest, only a bubble in the molten mass, pops and sighs out, and the
I sadly smiling remember that the flower fades to make fruit, the fruit rots
to make earth.
Out of the mother; and through the spring exultances, ripeness and decadence;
and home to the mother.
You making haste haste on decay: not blameworthy; life is good, be it stubbornly
long or suddenly
A mortal splendor: meteors are not needed less than mountains:
shine, perishing republic.
But for my children, I would have them keep their distance from the thickening
Never has been compulsory, when the cities lie at the monster’s feet there
are left the mountains.
And boys, be in nothing so moderate as in love of man, a clever servant,
There is the trap that catches noblest spirits, that caught – they say –
God, when he walked on earth.
Source: Roan Stallion, Tamar and Other Poems, by Robinson Jeffers (c. 1925 by Boni & Liveright). Robinson Jeffers was born in 1887 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He was the son of Presbyterian minister and Biblical scholar, Dr. William Hamilton Jeffers. In 1902, Jeffers enrolled in Western University of Pennsylvania. When his family moved to California, he transferred to Presbyterian Occidental College from which he graduated at age 18. Jeffers traveled widely throughout Europe and was well versed in Biblical and classical languages. His poetry celebrates the grandeur of the natural world every bit as much as it denigrates human nature and achievement. Jeffers’ pessimistic view of America’s destiny undermined what was initially a favorable response from its artistic community. Nonetheless, he remains a formidable influence on American poetry to the present day. You can find out more about Robinson Jeffers and read more of his poems at the Poetry Foundation website.
For a quick overview of the Book of the Prophet Isaiah, see the Summary Article at enterthebible.org by Fred Gaiser, Professor of Old Testament at Luther Seminary. To summarize the summary: The first part of this long book (Chapters 1-39) contains messages of judgment and warning similar to those of the other 8th Century prophets against hypocritical worship, complacency, and the failure to act with justice for the poor. As illustrated by the readings for the last two weeks, the prophet also speaks poetically and with graphic imagery about God’s coming messianic kingdom. The second part of the book (Chapters 40-55) brings words of comfort and hope to the exiles in Babylonian captivity in the 6th Century B.C.E. This section contains the “suffering servant” passages we commonly read during Lent and Holy Week such as Isaiah 53. Part three (Chapters 56-65) is made up of warnings and promises for the Jewish community after its return to Jerusalem following the fall of Babylon in 538 B.C.E.
If only it were really that simple! In fact, all three sections underwent editing by other prophetic authors who composed their own material or wove oracles and sayings from other sources into the collection of sayings they had received. Further editing and inclusion of sources took place as these three sections were brought together into the Book of Isaiah we have today. Thus, for example, our reading from today, though included in the collection of sayings made up primarily of the 8th Century prophet Isaiah, is likely a product of the 6th Century or perhaps as late as the 5th Century B.C.E. The parallels between this passage and similar verses in Second Isaiah such as Isaiah 55:12-13 suggest to some scholars a connection with the prophet of Second Isaiah or his disciples. Mauchline, John Isaiah 1-39, (c. 1962, SCM Press, Ltd.) p. 128. Some Hebrew scripture scholars also suggest that the prophetic utterance is even more recent dating from after the return of the Jews from Exile. They maintain that the “Holy Way” of which the prophet speaks is not only a return route from Babylon, but a multifaceted highway leading from the ends of the earth to Jerusalem by which Diaspora Jews (“the redeemed of the Lord”) may safely travel to the Holy City on pilgrimages. Kaiser, Otto, Isaiah 13-39, A Commentary, The Old Testament Library (c. 1974 SCM Press Ltd.) p. 362. A few authorities still maintain that this passage should be attributed to the prophet Isaiah of the 8th Century. They interpret the miraculous highway described therein as one for the return of the tribes of the Northern Kingdom conquered and carried into exile by the Assyrian Empire around 721-23 B.C.E. Mauchline, supra, p. 228. For reasons far too boring to discuss, I lean toward the late 6thto early 5th Century dating, but all of these theories are plausible.
As far as the canonical context goes, these jubilant verses of salvation, growth and renewal follow a withering oracle of judgment decreed against the nations in general and Edom in particular. Geographically, Edom was located south of Judea and the Dead Sea. See map. From the time of King Saul, Edom was subject to varying degrees of Israelite rule and suffered severe military reprisals for its efforts to win independence. Not surprisingly, then, Edom sided with the Babylonians in their final war with Judah and joined the Babylonian army in plundering Jerusalem. This perceived act of treachery was long remembered and the Judean thirst for revenge, chillingly expressed in the final verses of Psalm 137, was deeply impressed upon Israel’s psyche.
Though some scholars characterize Isaiah 34 as “apocalyptic,” I believe the label is misplaced. While the judgment in this chapter refers to cataclysmic cosmic events such as the stars of the heavens falling and the sky rolling up like a scroll, such hyperbolic language was common to prophets of the 8th Century when pronouncing God’s judgment within the confines of history. Furthermore, while the transformation of the desert into a garden-like highway free of intemperate weather and wild beasts is surely a miraculous event, it is no more historically improbable than Israel’s rescue at the Red Sea. I therefore believe that both chapters 34 and 35 have more in common with the earlier prophets’ preaching from the Exodus, Wilderness Wandering and Conquest of Canaan narratives than with the later apocalyptic writing such as that found in Daniel.
As with the lessons from the previous two weeks, these promises of salvation, reconciliation among the nations and world peace are spoken against the backdrop of an unstable and violent geopolitical landscape. The good news for such people “who lived in a land of deep darkness” (Isaiah 9:2) is that it does not have to be this way, nor will it always be so. In the very midst of all this chaos, injustice, meaningless bloodshed and cruelty, God is at work bringing to birth a new creation. Isaiah was no ivory tower theologian. He was deeply involved in the social, political and military issues faced by his country as Chapter 7 of Isaiah demonstrates. But the prophet and his later literary descendants recognized that the realities of violence, injustice and oppression were not the only and certainly not the final realities. They were convinced that the future belonged to the gentle reign of Israel’s God who alone is worthy of worship and ultimate loyalty.
This is a psalm of praise celebrating the sovereignty of Israel’s God. Like the remaining psalms in the Psalter (Psalm 147-Psalm 150) the hymn begins and ends with the exclamation, “hallelujah” which is Hebrew for “Praise Yahweh!” More than likely, this psalm comes rather late in Israel’s history. There is no mention of the line of David or any hint of the monarchy in Israel. After a half millennia of disappointing kings whose leadership ultimately led to the destruction of Solomon’s temple, the siege of Jerusalem and the loss of the promised land, Israel was in no mood to put her trust in yet another royal figure:
Do not put your trust in princes,
in mortals, in whom there is no help.
When their breath departs, they return to the earth;
on that very day their plans perish.
Vss. 3-4. Instead, Israel is encouraged to put her trust in God. God is the one ruler who “sets the prisoners free.” Only “the Lord opens the eyes of the blind…lifts up those who are bowed down…” and “loves the righteous.”vss. 7-9. The only king worthy of our trust is the God of Israel.
The psalm concludes with the bold affirmation that the Lord will reign forever. The implication is that God has been reigning throughout history in spite of some severe setbacks for Israel and despite her precarious existence under foreign domination and occupation. This confidence is rooted in Israel’s past experience of God’s salvation for the poor and downtrodden in the Exodus, Wilderness Wanderings and the Conquest of the Land of Canaan. The return from Exile might also be in view here.
But it must also be said that Israel’s faith is future oriented. There is reflected here a hope, expectation and longing for the “Day of the Lord” when perfect justice and righteousness will be established. This hope is sometimes expressed in military terms, though even when Israel prevailed over her enemies in war, she always understood these victories as engineered by God. See, e.g., Deuteronomy 8:17; Psalm 44:1-3. Yet from the time of the Judges to the time of the Maccabean rulers, Israel’s experience with political and military rulers had been a disappointment. Even the best of these leaders had failed to inaugurate anything like the new creation to which her prophets testified. Clearly, another kind of messiah was needed.
Once again, the lectionary people have committed exegetical malpractice, cutting the reading off before the most important verse, that being James 5:11: “Indeed, we call those blessed who were steadfast…” Not in this country. We call those blessed who are “over comers,” “high achievers,” “result getters.” Too often, the church falls into step with these false values. Mission strategies too often aim at institutional growth and stability instead of faithful witness. Congregations judge their pastors on membership growth, giving levels and building projects instead of faithfulness to the work of sacramental ministry, preaching, teaching, evangelism and public witness. Congregations are judged by their ability to support the denomination’s programs and initiatives. Results, not steadfastness are the measure of a disciple’s worth in this twisted understanding of mission and church.
James points out that patience is a principal virtue for disciples of Jesus. There is nothing a disciple can or must do to make God’s kingdom come. God has that covered. Our task is to recognize the reign of Christ as the only genuine future there is and live accordingly. We don’t ask silly questions like: “How do I know that my contributions to hunger relief will bring any measurable improvement to people’s lives? How can I be sure that my efforts to achieve reconciliation will succeed? How can I know whether forgiveness of my enemy will only be seen as weakness and so invite more aggression?” The simple answer is that you don’t know and it doesn’t matter. Disciples feed the hungry, seek reconciliation and forgive their enemies because Jesus tells us too. That is enough reason. Let God worry about the results and how they fit into the future God is preparing for creation. That is not a bad message for those of us who have been waiting for two millennia for the consummation of God’s reign.
Last week we met John the Baptist at the peak of his career baptizing the crowds coming to him from all over Judea. Now we meet him near the end of his career, languishing in Herod’s prison. We know so little about John’s religious outlook that it is difficult to know what expectations he may have had for Jesus. Like Jesus, John proclaimed that the kingdom of heaven was at hand and called for repentance. Matthew 3:2. He proclaimed the coming of one who would “baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire.” Matthew 3:11. The “you” here refers to the people as a whole rather than to individuals. Such fiery baptism would purge the people, separating the chaff from the wheat. It is in anticipation of this baptism of fire that John’s baptism of repentance is offered. So from Matthew’s perspective, John’s question seems to be whether Jesus is the one to bring about this baptism of fire that will cleanse the people of Israel, thereby making them fit for the coming reign of heaven.
There is good reason for John’s doubts. So far from separating the wheat from the chaff, Jesus associates with the chaff, the “sinners” and outcasts of his people. He touches people who are unclean and violates the Sabbath-hardly the sort of behavior you would expect from someone sent to purify the people of Israel. Though Jesus has established a following, he also faces stiff and perhaps insurmountable opposition from the powerful Pharisees and the Sadducean leadership in Jerusalem. Moreover, John’s reward for baptizing and endorsing Jesus is prison and ultimately death. It seems that Jesus has some explaining to do.
As is his usual habit, Jesus does not give John’s messengers a direct answer. He merely tells the messengers to go back to John and tell him what they have seen. “You be the judge,” says Jesus. “The blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.” What’s your verdict? Vs. 5. That might sound like a no-brainer. Much of this comes straight from our lesson in Isaiah and the rest goes considerably beyond. If works like these cannot convince a skeptic, what can? And yet, Jesus goes on to add, “and blessed is anyone who takes no offence at me.’” Vs. 6.
What does Jesus mean by that? I suspect that part of this stems from John’s imprisonment. Jesus must be a poor sort of messiah if he cannot save his messenger, the promised Elijah, from the clutches of a penny ante thug like Herod Antipas. How will he fare against the Roman Empire? Jesus seems unaware or unconcerned that the jaws of powerful historical currents are closing in upon him. In view of all this, what difference do all these wonderful signs make? To what use is sight restored only to see more injustice and oppression? The relief Jesus provides to the individuals he touches means nothing if the rest of the vast creation remains untouched and enslaved to systemic sin. Even now the offense of the cross is in view and John’s question seems to be: “If Jesus winds up getting himself crucified, as seems likely, will there be another to whom we can look for salvation?” The answer is “no,” there will be no other and that is the core of the offense.
Jesus’ remarks about John’s role indicate clearly that something is dying with John. Notions of messianic salvation molded on tactics of violence, whether through military action or through imposition of morality, whether they are grounded in the scriptures or elsewhere, have no place in Jesus’ mission. Our efforts to build a moral society through just laws and procedures are doomed to failure. Whatever hopes we have for salvation through political or military might, through education and knowledge or through gradual human progress die on the cross. History is not something made by great societies or influential individuals. God is directing history toward his own chosen future which is revealed in Jesus’ resurrection. The way lies through the cross-suffering endured as a result of living the precepts of the Sermon on the Mount in a world that is, for now, hostile to the way of life it portrays. It bears repeating: it is not that the Sermon provides a blue print for a perfect church or a better society. Rather, it reflects the future Jesus promises and invites us to live in even now. What prophets like John could only foretell Jesus inaugurates-under the sign of the cross.