Tag Archives: apocalyptic literature

Sunday, November 6th

All Saints Day

Daniel 7:1-3, 15-18
Psalm 149
Ephesians 1:11-23
Luke 6:20-31

Prayer of the Day: Almighty God, you have knit your people together in one communion in the mystical body of your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord. Grant us grace to follow your blessed saints in lives of faith and commitment, and to know the inexpressible joys you have prepared for those who love you, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

All Saints Day is the church’s Veteran’s Day, a time for honoring the memory of all whose lives have illuminated for us the way of the cross and the shape of faithful discipleship in every age. Special attention is given to the martyrs, those whose witness to Jesus required the loss of their lives. The first of these known to us was the deacon, Stephen, who died at the hands of an angry mob. His story is recounted in the Book of Acts. Acts 6-7. One thing always puzzled me about that story. Stephen was one of seven disciples elected to oversee food assistance to destitute widows. How did he go from running a soup kitchen to being at the epicenter of a violent controversy?

I don’t think becoming the first Christian martyr was Stephen’s goal in life. I suspect he would have been perfectly happy to spend his life in anonymity caring for the poor. But caring for the poor can get you into deep trouble. St. Lawrence of Rome, another deacon charged with care of the poor in his city, caught the attention of a Roman prefect. Having witnessed the very generous giving by the church to the poor in Rome, the prefect imagined that the church must have in its possession a huge store of wealth. He ordered Lawrence to turn over to him the treasures of the church. Lawrence promised to do just that within three days. He gathered together a large crowd of the poor, crippled and destitute people under the church’s care and presented them to the prefect three days later declaring, “Behold the treasure of the church!” The prefect was not amused. He had Lawrence burned alive.

This is no coincidence. Hatred of the poor is endemic to most cultures. In our own country we try to pretend that the poor don’t exist. We shut them out of our gated communities, we put impassible distances between them and our suburbs and we employ vagrancy laws enabling the police to clear them out of places where their presence might disturb shoppers, theater patrons and tourists. The poor are unwelcome reminders of our nation’s failures, a challenge to the “American Dream” in which we want so desperately to believe. Because the presence of the poor challenges all that we would like to believe about ourselves, we react to them with hostility. We blame them for their predicament. They are lazy, shiftless, dishonest and unmotivated. The benefits that keep them alive are a burden on the rest of us honest, hardworking citizens. That’s not fair! Besides, helping the poor only destroys what little incentive they might still have to better themselves. Charity is “toxic.” The kindest thing you can do for the poor is to take them off the dole and force them to fend for themselves.

There is some truth to that notion of “toxic charity” as I noted in my post for Sunday, February 21, 2016. My concern there, however, had less to do with destroying the incentive of poor people to better themselves and more with how misguided efforts to help them reinforce our stereotypes of poor people and cause those we help to feel judged rather than loved and valued. Such charity is indeed toxic, both for the church and those we seek to help. Yet when I hear the well-heeled beneficiaries of white privilege complain about toxic charity, it sounds a lot more like a rationale for selfishness, self-righteousness and greed than a serious response to poverty. It also demonstrates a glaring ignorance of poverty and its causes. Though I have worked all my adult life and put in far more than a forty-hour week more than half that time, I have never worked as hard as the homeless people I have met over the years in their struggle to survive day by day. I have thankfully never suffered from addiction, depression or chronic illness. If I had, however, I would have been surrounded by family and friends who would have been there to see that I got the treatment I needed and the care I required. Without that network, you are always just one stroke, one drink, one bad decision, one accident away from poverty and perhaps homelessness.

Are there poor people who game the system? Sure. But are they gamming the system any more than corporations that get huge tax breaks, ostensibly to invest in American production and generate American jobs, but invest their savings in foreign stocks instead? Are the poor gamming the system any more than real estate tycoons who repeatedly use bankruptcy laws to escape their contractual obligations, avoid their just debts and stiff their workers? Are the poor gamming the system any more than the vast majority of us who are willing to let a sub-class of warriors die fighting wars we have nearly forgotten about? If we cannot see these great logs of selfish exploitation in our own eyes, how dare we presume to take the speck out of the eye of one who is merely trying to get through another day?

In our gospel lesson Jesus proclaims that the poor are blessed. He is speaking, of course, to his disciples. Jesus presumes that his followers, if they are not poor themselves, are nevertheless solidly aligned with the poor. Jesus does not glorify poverty. The poor are not blessed because they are poor, but because the kingdom of God belongs to them. To be on the side of the poor is to be on the side of God. To oppose the poor is to war against God. It’s as simple as that. The saints of God know that the poor are on the winning side of history. We ignore their cries for justice at our peril

Here’s a poem by Robert Southey reflecting those plaintive cries to a society that has nearly lost its ability to hear.

The Complaints of the Poor

And wherefore do the Poor complain?
The rich man asked of me,—
Come walk abroad with me, I said
And I will answer thee.

Twas evening and the frozen streets
Were cheerless to behold,
And we were wrapt and coated well,
And yet we were a-cold.

We met an old bare-headed man,
His locks were few and white,
I ask’d him what he did abroad
In that cold winter’s night:

‘Twas bitter keen indeed, he said,
But at home no fire had he,
And therefore, he had come abroad
To ask for charity.

We met a young bare-footed child,
And she begg’d loud and bold,
I ask’d her what she did abroad
When the wind it blew so cold;

She said her father was at home
And he lay sick a-bed,
And therefore was it she was sent
Abroad to beg for bread.

We saw a woman sitting down
Upon a stone to rest,
She had a baby at her back
And another at her breast;

I ask’d her why she loiter’d there
When the wind it was so chill;
She turn’d her head and bade the child
That scream’d behind be still.

She told us that her husband served
A soldier, far away,
And therefore to her parish she
Was begging back her way.

We met a girl; her dress was loose
And sunken was her eye,
Who with the wanton’s hollow voice
Address’d the passers by;

I ask’d her what there was in guilt
That could her heart allure
To shame, disease, and late remorse?
She answer’d, she was poor.

I turn’d me to the rich man then
For silently stood he,
You ask’d me why the Poor complain,
And these have answer’d thee.

Source: this poem is in the public domain. Robert Southey (1774–1843) was born in Bristol, England. He spent much of his childhood living under the watchful discipline of a stern aunt and in boarding schools that were hardly less vigorous in their enforcement of discipline. He was an avid reader of classic poets like Shakespeare and Milton. While at Westminster public school he wrote a satirical article on corporal punishment. The administration was not amused. He was promptly expelled. This anti-authoritarian streak continued into his adult life as he became an avid supporter of the French Revolution. In addition to his many poems, Southey produced plays, essays and historical sagas. You can find out more about Robert Southey and read more of his poems at the Poetry Foundation website.

Daniel 7:1-3, 15-18

There is no getting around it: the Book of Daniel is a strange piece of literature. It is usually classified “apocalyptic” as is the Book of Revelation. Both of these books employ lurid images of fabulous beasts and cosmic disasters to make sense out of the authors’ experiences of severe persecution and suffering. In the case of Daniel, the crisis is the oppression of the Jews under the Macedonian tyrant, Antiochus Epiphanes whose short but brutal reign lasted from 167-164 B.C.E. Antiochus was determined to spread Greek culture to his conquered territories and to that end tried to stamp out all distinctively Jewish practices. He compelled his Jewish henchmen to eat pork-strictly forbidden under Mosaic Law-and threatened with torture and death those who refused. Antiochus considered himself a god and was thought to be mad by many of his contemporaries. Antiochus’ most offensive act was his desecration of the Temple in Jerusalem with an altar to Zeus upon which he sacrificed pigs. Though many Jews resisted to the point of martyrdom efforts to turn them from their faith, others were more inclined to submit to or even collaborate with Antiochus.

The early chapters of the Book of Daniel tell the tale of its namesake, a young Jew by the name of Daniel taken captive and deported three hundred years earlier by the Babylonians under Nebuchadnezzar. This is Daniel of lions’ den fame. Stories about Daniel’s faithfulness in the face of persecution under King Nebuchadnezzar and later under the Persian rulers are retold in the new context in order to give comfort and encouragement to Jews struggling to remain faithful under the reign of Antiochus. It is as though the author were saying, “Look people, we have been through this before. We can get through it again.” The latter chapters contain apocalyptic material that, like Revelation, has given rise to no end of speculation over what it might have to say about when the world will end. That concern, however, was far from the mind of the author of Daniel. His concern was with the present suffering of his people and sustaining them as they waited for a better day.

Our text for this Sunday comes at the very beginning of the apocalyptic section of the book. Daniel is visited by “visions in the night” during which he observes four great beasts coming up out of the sea. At this juncture, the lectionary takes a flying leap over the graphic descriptions of each of the beasts. That is unfortunate because we need to meet them in order to understand the promises made to Daniel at the end of our reading. I therefore invite you to read verses 4-14 before proceeding any further. The first beast is described as a lion with eagles’ wings and is identified by most Hebrew Scripture scholars with the Babylonian Empire which destroyed Jerusalem and took many of the Jews into exile in 587 B.C.E. Vs. 4 The second beast, a bear with three ribs in its mouth, is identified with the empire of the Medes. Vs. 5 The third beast is a winged leopard corresponding to the Persian Empire under Cyrus who, as you may recall, conquered the Babylonians and permitted the Jews to return from exile in Babylon to their homeland in Palestine. Vs. 6 The fourth beast is nothing like any living animal. More vicious and destructive than the beasts before it, this animal has iron teeth and ten horns. Vs. 7. It represents the Greek Empire founded by Alexander the Great. The ten horns represent ten rulers who succeeded Alexander, ruling various parts of his empire. The little horn speaking “great things” is our friend Antiochus.

Also omitted from our reading are the “planting of thrones” and the descent of the “Ancient of Days” and his host of thousands. Before him “books” are opened and judgment is passed upon the nations. The fourth beast is destroyed and consigned to flames, but the remaining kingdoms are merely deprived of their jurisdiction. At this point “one like a son of man” is given dominion over all the nations of the earth. His kingdom, we are told, will not pass away. Now we are finally in a position to understand the full import of the words spoken to Daniel by one of the heavenly host: “These four great beasts are four kings who shall arise out of the earth. But the saints of the Most High shall receive the kingdom forever, forever and ever.” Vss 17-18. It might now appear that the “saints” or faithful Jews are helpless pawns in the struggle between these great empires. But appearances can be deceiving. In the end, it is not any one of the kingdoms asserting power over the earth that will prevail. The kingdom of the Most High will finally rule the peoples of all nations and tongues through the agency of his messiah.

The sixty-four thousand dollar question is: Who determines the outcome of history? From a modernist point of view, history is the confluence of innumerable currents that can be influenced for better or worse by human activity. The Book of Daniel offers us a radically different outlook. According to Daniel, history is God’s project from beginning to end. The kingdom of God comes in its own good time without any help from us, thanks just the same. The people of God can live an anticipatory counter-cultural existence of humble obedience under that reign even now and so bear witness to it. But they cannot hasten its coming anymore than the kingdom’s adversaries can prevent it.

That said, witness is important and faithfulness invariably leads to conflict with the surrounding culture. The fiery ordeal faced by the people addressed in the Book of Daniel is hard for most of us to imagine. Yet in more subtle ways, I believe that disciples of Jesus are faced with decisions that require them to take a stand for or against Jesus. Even in a society where being a disciple of Jesus is not against the law, following Jesus still means taking up the cross. The good news here is that persecution, failure and even death do not constitute the end of the game. God promises to work redemption through what we perceive to be futile gestures of faithfulness in a wicked and ruthless world. So too, our gospel lesson points out that lives spent struggling against starvation, poverty and injustice for Jesus’ sake will not have been wasted.

Psalm 149

Most biblical scholars date this psalm on the later side, most likely during the period of Greek dominance over Palestine discussed under the reading from Daniel. The psalm is distinct from most other psalms in one important respect. Although many psalms cry out to God for vengeance against enemies, the psalmists do not undertake vengeance on their own or seek to execute retributive justice on God’s behalf. Psalm 149, however, prays concerning the faithful, “Let the high praises of God be in their throats and two-edged swords in their hands, to wreak vengeance on the nations and chastisement on the peoples, to bind their kings with chains and their nobles with fetters of iron, to execute on them the judgment written decreed.” Vss. 6-9. There is no question here that the people of Israel are being called to take part in executing God’s judgment against the nations of the world that do not acknowledge him. More troubling still is the interpretive history of this psalm. It was used as a battle cry by Roman Catholic princes during the Thirty-Years War and also by the radical Anabaptist, Thomas Munzer, in his violent crusades.

What then can we say about this psalm? First, the psalm is entirely consistent with Israel’s conviction (and that of the church as well) that God is one and admits of no rival. Judgment is always the flip side of salvation, but only God is competent to judge. With this the psalmist is in agreement. Although Israel is called upon to execute judgment, the judgment to be enforced is that which is “decreed.” Vs. 9. Until such time as God makes clear to his people precisely what is just and how his justice is to be implemented, Israel must refrain from taking action against those “judged.”

Second, as the First Letter of Peter reminds us, “the time has come for judgment to begin with the household of God…” I Peter 4:17. Just as the line between good and evil runs through the middle of every human heart, so every heart must undergo judgment. No one can claim to be entirely on the side of God such that there need be no reckoning with sin. It appears, then, that the execution of judgment to which Israel is summoned in Psalm 149is an eschatological event, that is to say, it points to a time when righteousness, wickedness and justice are made to stand out in unmistakable clarity. For disciples of Jesus, such a time cannot come until the revealing of the Son of Man.

Third, disciples of Jesus read this psalm the way they read all of Scripture: through the lens of Jesus. After all, we are not baptized into the name of Joshua son of Nun but into the name of Jesus of Nazareth. Jesus was never shy about telling his disciples when to go beyond the written word in obedience to God. Thus, the Scriptures limit retribution to exacting from the wrongdoer only the price of his wrong. If someone knocks out your tooth, you don’t chop off his heard or burn down his house or murder his family. You get the value of a tooth, no more and no less. But Jesus tells his disciples that they must go further than the Hebrew Scriptures. They are not to seek retribution of any kind. They are to turn the other cheek when stricken and forgive up to seventy times seventy in any given day.

Finally, in both the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament, God’s judgment comes chiefly through God’s word. When the prophet describes the reign of God’s messianic king, he declares that he “shall smite the earth with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips he shall slay the wicked.” Isaiah 11:4. When John of Patmos describes how Christ appears to exercise his reign at the close of the age, he tells us that “From his mouth issues a sharp sword with which to smite the nations…” Revelation 19:15. In short, God does not employ violence to implement his reign. He speaks his Incarnate Word and sends fourth his Holy Spirit to transform hearts and minds. Thus, however Israel may have once interpreted the injunctions in Psalm 149, disciples of Jesus must interpret them consistent with Jesus’ call to confront an evil and unbelieving world with God’s offer of compassion, forgiveness and the promise of a new creation. The two edge sword we wield must be the sword of the Spirit.

The problematic sections of this psalm should not obscure the overall theme which is a call to praise God with melody, musical instruments and even dancing. Worship is supposed to be joyful, exuberant and strenuous. We Lutherans could use more than a little of that in our worship practices!

Ephesians 1:11-23

For an excellent summary of Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians, see the article of Mary Hinkle Shore, Associate Professor of New Testament on enterthebible.org.

Verses 15-23 constitute one very long sentence in the original Greek text. The old RSV preserves that sentence structure in its translation to the consternation of anyone who has ever tried to unpack these important passages. Thankfully for this Sunday’s readers, the New RSV has broken the reading down into several sentences. For all who have the patience to work through them, these verses provide a beautiful articulation of the Christian hope encompassing life here and now in the Body of Christ and life as it is folded into the “glorious inheritance of the saints” with Christ in the “heavenly places.”

There are more sermons in these verses than any preacher could exhaust in a lifetime. The particular verses that caught my eye this time around are the last two, vss. 22-23, pointing out that the church, Christ’s Body, is the “fullness of him who fills all in all.” It is mindboggling, albeit true, that each little congregation gathered around the Word and Sacrament is the fullness of Christ. It is Paul’s prayer that his hearers will come to understand the hope to which they have been called and the wealth of their inheritance. Though it does not appear that Paul himself was the author of this epistle* and we know little about the congregation or congregations to which it is addressed, it seems evident that the audience is predominantly gentile. Thus, Paul wishes to impress upon his hearers the deep and profound treasures of the covenant into which they have been brought by invitation through Christ Jesus.

Although Paul makes only scant use of the Hebrew Scriptures in Ephesians (another reason why most scholars tend to think the target audience was principally gentile), there are many echoes of Old Testament texts throughout the letter and in Sunday’s reading in particular. Verse 22, where Paul remarks that God has “put all things under his [Christ’s) feet,” reflects the language of Psalm 110:1 and Psalm 8:6. Thielman, Frank S., Ephesians published in Beale, G.K. & Carson, D.A., Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament (c. 2007 G.K. Beale & D.A. Carson, Baker Press) p 815.  Psalm 110 is likely a coronation hymn for Judean kings and so it is not surprising that Paul should allude to it in speaking of Jesus’ elevation to God’s right hand. That Jews in the first century gave the psalm a messianic interpretation is suggested by the use Jesus made of it in his disputation with his adversaries. See, e.g., Mark 12:35-37. Clearly, early Christians interpreted the psalm in this way. Hays, R.B., Echoes of Scripture in the Letters of Paul, (c. 1989 Yale Press) 163-66.  Similarly, Psalm 8 speaks in poetic terms of human domination over creation. Jewish interpreters of the Second Temple period believed that Adam’s right to rule the world had been transferred to Israel and that God would one day give to the righteous remnant of his people the glory of Adam. Thielman, supra, p 816. Paul also spoke of Christ as a “new” Adam in his letter to the Romans. Romans 5:12-21. As such, Christ is entitled to reign not merely over the earth, but may properly be placed “far above all rule and authority and power and dominion.” Vs. 21.

*I will nevertheless continue to refer to the author as “Paul.” Though perhaps not the actual author, his thought pervades the letter. Besides, it is a lot less awkward than referring repeatedly to “the author.”

Luke 6:20-31

This excerpt from Luke’s “Sermon on the Plain” has some striking similarities to the “Sermon on the Mount” as presented in the Gospel of Matthew. See Matthew 5-7. It is generally accepted that both sermons are drawn from the same basic written tradition commonly called “Q.” But there are also significant differences and it is not clear whether these differences stem from variations in the source material or the editing of the gospel writers. In my own opinion, it is likely a matter of both/and rather than either/or. Clearly, some editing on the part of the gospel writers is at work. In Matthew, Jesus speaks from the mountain top evoking the image of Moses while going beyond Moses in many of his teachings. Luke’s Sermon is spoken on level ground. There appear to be three groups present: The twelve apostles Jesus selected just previously in vss. 12-16; “a great crowd of his disciples;” and “a great multitude of people.” In both cases, Jesus’ teachings are directed specifically at his disciples-not to the general public. Whereas Matthew contains more “beatitudes” than does Luke (Matthew 5:3-11), Luke includes four “Woes” not found in Matthew. Vss. 24-26.

It is important to emphasize that Jesus is speaking chiefly to his disciples here. Jesus does not make a virtue of poverty. There is no blessing in starvation. But for all who become impoverished for the sake of following Jesus and living for God’s reign, there are blessings that outweigh the woes of poverty. Similarly, weeping induced by suffering for the sake of Jesus and the reign of God he proclaims will likewise be outshone by the joy of experiencing God’s reign. So too, all who prefer wealth, comfort and security over Jesus’ invitation into the reign of God will someday understand the opportunity they threw away. They will have good reason to weep and hunger for that precious lost chance.

New Testament scholar Joachim Jeremias argues forcefully that the Sermon on the Plain/Mount was the body of an early catechism for Christian ethical training. Jeremias, J., The Sermon on the Mount,  (c. London, 1961) pp 30-35 cited in Ellis, Earle E., The Gospel of Luke, The New Century Bible Commentary (c. 1974 Marshall, Morgan & Scott) p. 111. The commands given in the sermon presuppose an understanding of the gospel and merely spell out the shape obedience to that gospel must take. The kingdom’s coming is God’s doing and, as such, an act of sheer grace. The challenge for the children of the kingdom is to live now under that gentle reign. By so doing, they ensure that when the kingdom comes it will be welcomed joyfully as salvation rather than met with fear as judgment. As another commentator puts it:

“The sermon [on the Plain] is a description of the life of the new Israel, which is also life in the kingdom of God. In its fullness the kingdom belongs to the End, when God’s purposes are complete, and so throughout the Beatitudes there runs a contrast between the conditions of the present and the conditions of the future. But the good news which Jesus proclaimed was that the kingdom was already breaking in upon the present, so that men could here and now begin to enter into ultimate blessedness. Thus the Beatitudes were not merely a promise but an invitation.”  Caird, G.B. Saint Luke, The Pelican New Testament Commentaries (c. G.B. Caird 1963 pub. Penguin Books, Ltd.) p. 102.

The call to love enemies, throw blessings at curses and forswear all resort to violence and coercion form the radical core of discipleship. These words are not meant to apply only to folks with nothing between them but white picket fences. These are not ethics only for church picnics and potluck suppers. The enemies Jesus calls us to love are not simply obnoxious neighbors, rude checkout clerks or inconsiderate drivers. Enemies are people that hate us and would kill us if they could. Jesus’ enemies tortured him to death. He died praying for their forgiveness-just as he teaches us to do here. Never does Jesus act violently, teach violence or condone violence under any circumstance. Over the last several years I have become convinced that non-violence is at the core of the gospel and that Christian support for state sponsored killing (euphemistically called “military action”) and the mainline church’s reluctance to condemn it constitutes a stark betrayal of the gospel. I think it is high time that my own denomination in particular take a serious look at the faithful and courageous Anabaptist witness to peace throughout the ages. It is time to re-evaluate our centuries old adherence to “just war” doctrines.

 

Sunday, August 7th

Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost

Genesis 15:1–6
Psalm 33:12–22
Hebrews 11:1–3, 8–16
Luke 12:32–40

Prayer of the Day: Almighty God, you sent your Holy Spirit to be the life and light of your church. Open our hearts to the riches of your grace, that we may be ready to receive you wherever you appear, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.

The clarion call for preparedness sounds throughout the New Testament. This call, however, is far more specific than the Boy Scout motto: “be prepared.” The Apostles urge us to prepare for the coming of the Son of Man, the day on which Jesus will be revealed, the judgment of the quick and the dead. I wish the Apostles had told us more. Specifically, I wish the Jesus had given us an historical road map through the remainder of history, a date certain for the end or at least some way to know when the time is drawing near. Nothing is quite as unnerving as getting lost and being without a map, compass or GPS.

I hardly need to tell you that there are no shortage of pastors, teachers and self-proclaimed prophets who claim to have found just such an historical road map in the Bible. One such individual was Rev. Timothy Lahaye who passed away last week. Lahaye co-authored the popular Left Behind series of books that later inspired several movies under the same franchise. Though perhaps good for some harmless distraction while trapped in an airport or sitting in the doctor’s office, these books should not be taken for more than what they are: fast, entertaining reads. They tell us a lot more about Rev. Lahaye’s politics, philosophy and worldview than about anything in the Bible.  The Left behind series reflects fear and loathing for the United Nations, globalization, Catholicism and mainline Protestantism. Behind the elaborate plot and a very selective use of scriptural passages ripped from their context lies a profound despair over the future. The Left Behind books mirror the American religious right’s deeply felt conviction that the America we all once knew and loved has been taken away from us. Lahaye and his followers, however, have given up on “taking America back” and “making America great again.” They are convinced that the world has slipped too far into the grip of the forces of evil they fear. Nothing short of a violent cleansing for the earth through the wars, plagues and natural disasters of the “tribulation” and the forceful implementation of Christ’s kingdom can set things right.

Of course, Lahaye is not the only one claiming to have figured out God’s’ timeline. In the 1970s Hal Lindsey made a big stir with his book, The Late Great Planet Earth. And who can forget Harold Camping and his prediction that the world’s end would occur on May 21, 2011? There are numerous other individuals throughout history too numerous to list who have tried to figure out what even Jesus himself did not know-exactly when the kingdom of God will be revealed in its fullness.

It’s easy to poke fun at these failed prophets and more so the many hapless folk who always seem to be taken in by their claims. But I can understand the anxiety and impatience that give such claims their appeal. After all, it is not easy remaining on full alert twenty-four/seven until further notice. It’s not easy, having to earn a living, raise a family and pay off a mortgage-all while keeping one eye peeled for the coming of the Son of Man. More difficult still is our lack of understanding about what exactly we are looking for and how we are supposed to know it when we see it. Yes, I know there are some graphic descriptions of the coming of the Son of Man in the New Testament. But these come to us in the garb of apocalyptic literature whose lurid, poetic imagery was never intended to be taken as news headlines from the future. It is the kind of language you have to use when talking about something you know to be real but don’t fully comprehend. It was  designed to inspire, encourage and comfort-not to measure, quantify and explain.

Our lesson from the Letter to the Hebrews tells us that “faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” Hebrews 11:1. Faith seeks understanding, but does not require it. Abraham and Sarah did not need to understand how God would fulfill God’s promise to give them an heir. Nor did they have to understand when or how God would manage to give their descendants the land ruled by powerful Canaanite city states in which they were dwelling as illegal aliens. In the same way, we don’t need to understand when or how God will complete the reconciliation of all things in Jesus Christ, how the hearts of all the world will be won over to faith in Jesus or how those who have died in faith will be raised up to participate in God’s new heaven and earth. As John the Apostle tells us, “Beloved, we are God’s children now; it does not yet appear what we shall be, but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is.” I John 3:2. It is enough to know that in the end, God will dwell among God’s people; we will have formed in us the mind of Christ; and we will be able to see God as God is and all of God’s people as they are known and loved by God in Christ. The when and the how of that must be left in the hands of the God who promises to bring it all about.

In the meantime we wait, remaining alert to the signs of the coming of the Son of Man. As the saints of old, we will likely die in faith. Yet we, like them, “have seen and greeted” that day from afar. Hebrews 11:13. As church, we struggle to live together as though the kingdom has come in its fullness and God’s will is being done on earth as in heaven. As Clarence Jordan so aptly put it, we strive to be a demonstration plot for the new heaven and new earth spoken of in the Book of Revelation where God and all God’s people live together as one. Much of the time, we fail miserably. But every so often, we get it right. Every so often the miracle of forgiveness, reconciliation and peace shine through in our midst by some witness of love, courage and wisdom. That seems to happen just often enough to remind us of what God has in store for us at the end and to keep us watchful, hopeful and ready for the coming of the Son of Man.

At the end of the day, it matters more that our hearts and minds are shaped by the faithful anticipation of Jesus’s revealing than knowing when and how it is to come about. The best preparation for the coming of the Son of Man is learning to love and serve him now so that, whenever he arrives, we will not find him to be a stranger.

Here is a poem about faithful anticipation by Emily Brontë.

How Beautiful the Earth is Still

How beautiful the earth is still,
To thee – how full of happiness!
How little fraught with real ill,
Or unreal phantoms of distress!
How spring can bring thee glory, yet,
And summer win thee to forget
December’s sullen time!
Why dost thou hold the treasure fast,
Of youth’s delight, when youth is past,
And thou art near thy prime?

When those who were thy own compeers,
Equals in fortune and in years,
Have seen their morning melt in tears,
To clouded, smileless day;
Blest, had they died untried and young,
Before their hearts went wandering wrong,
Poor slaves, subdued by passions strong,
A weak and helpless prey!

” Because, I hoped while they enjoyed,
And, by fulfilment, hope destroyed;
As children hope, with trustful breast,
I waited bliss – and cherished rest.
A thoughtful spirit taught me, soon,
That we must long till life be done;
That every phase of earthly joy
Must always fade, and always cloy:

This I foresaw – and would not chase
The fleeting treacheries;
But, with firm foot and tranquil face,
Held backward from that tempting race,
Gazed o’er the sands the waves efface,
To the enduring seas – ;
There cast my anchor of desire
Deep in unknown eternity;
Nor ever let my spirit tire,
With looking for what is to be!

It is hope’s spell that glorifies,
Like youth, to my maturer eyes,
All Nature’s million mysteries,
The fearful and the fair –
Hope soothes me in the griefs I know;
She lulls my pain for others’ woe,
And makes me strong to undergo
What I am born to bear.

Glad comforter! will I not brave,
Unawed, the darkness of the grave?
Nay, smile to hear Death’s billows rave –
Sustained, my guide, by thee?
The more unjust seems present fate,
The more my spirit swells elate,
Strong, in thy strength, to anticipate
Rewarding destiny!”

Source: The Poems of Emily Brontë, edited by Derek Roper and Edward Chitham (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1995). Emily Brontë was born on July 30, 1818 in the parsonage at Thornton in Yorkshire to the Reverend Patrick Brontë and Maria Branwell Brontë. Best known for her novel, Wuthering Heights, she was also the author of several poems, most of which did not receive public attention until after her death in 1848. You can read more about Emily Brontë and sample some of her other poems at the Poetry Foundation Website.

Genesis 15:1–6

Abram’s arrangement with Eliezer reflects a custom known to have existed in Mesopotamia documented in the Nuzu tablets.  Nuzu was an ancient Mesopotamian city located southwest of Kirkūk in Iraq. Excavations undertaken there by archaeologists in 1925–31 revealed material extending from the prehistoric period to the age of the early Roman Empire. More than 4,000 cuneiform tablets were discovered at the site. These tablets date from about the 15th century B.C.E. and contain numerous statutes governing family relationships and civil institutions. According to these provisions, a childless property owner could provisionally adopt a slave who would then be obligated to care for his owner until death and see to his proper burial. In exchange for these services, the slave would be freed and inherit his owner’s property. The arrangement was provisional insofar as it became null and void upon the birth of a legal heir to the owner. Such was the case for Eliezer upon the birth of Isaac. (Sorry Eliezer. Close, but no cigar.)

Abram is assured that his line will not become extinct, but that a son born to him will be the channel of fulfillment for the original promise made in Chapter 12 (Genesis 12:1-3) and repeated here.  Abram’s response is to believe the promise. This particular response of Abram is prominent in Paul’s arguments in both Romans and Galatians for the primacy of faith over works. Knowledge of this background is critical to understanding what Paul means by “faith.” It is not the unquestioning acceptance of doctrinal propositions, but confidence in God’s promises. Therefore, even though faith is primary, it is never divorced from a faithful response. Abram has already demonstrated his confidence in God’s promises to him by uprooting himself from his homeland and becoming a wandering sojourner in Canaan. Though some of Abram’s subsequent actions reflect a less than faithful attitude, that only goes to show that the fulfillment of the covenant promises finally depends neither upon Abram’s faith nor on his works but upon God’s faithfulness.

Psalm 33:12–22

This psalm of praise celebrates Israel’s God as both creator and lord of history.  Sunday’s reading begins at verse 12 with the exclamation, “Blessed is the nation whose God is the Lord, the people he has chosen as his heritage!”  God is not a passive and objective observer when it comes to the affairs of nations and peoples. God is unashamedly partisan and favors Israel through which he will be made known to the world of nations. Neither kings nor their armies direct the course of history. Reliance upon them is futile. By contrast, the Lord can be trusted to deliver those who rely upon him. Consequently, while the nations rely upon their rulers and their armies, Israel’s hope is in the Lord.

It is difficult to date this psalm. An argument can be made that, given the psalmist’s dismissive attitude toward the power of kings and military might, the psalm was likely composed after the Babylonian Exile when Israel had neither the monarchy nor an army. On the other hand, even during the pre-exilic monarchy Israel always understood that victory comes from the Lord. Consequently, it is altogether possible that this psalm constitutes a festival liturgy used for worship in Solomon’s Temple in Jerusalem or perhaps even during the era of the Judges.

In a culture that is prone to rely increasingly upon military might, violence and raw power to settle disputes, this psalm sounds a dissonant chord, calling us to recognize God’s reign and leave the business of retribution to him. The Lord neither needs nor desires our assistance in punishing the wicked. Instead, we are called to bear witness to God’s goodness in lives of faithful obedience. The extent of faithfulness to which we are called is the measure of Jesus’ faithfulness unto death. Knowing that “the eye of the Lord is on all who fear him [and] on those who hope in his steadfast love,” we can face the might of kings and their warhorses without violence and without fear. “Our soul waits for the Lord; he is our help and shield.” Vs. 20

Hebrews 11:1–3, 8–16

As we will be hearing from the Book of Hebrews for the next four weeks, it might be helpful to refresh our recollections with an overview. As most of you know by now, I do not view this epistle as an assertion of Christianity’s 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 both Jews and Christians who, according to the Book of Acts, worshiped there. For Jews it meant the end of the sacrificial cult that came to define much of what it meant to be a Jew. For Christians it meant the loss of an institution Jesus attempted to purify and the failure of a prophetic understanding of its destruction as a sign of the inbreaking of God’s reign. In short, the destruction of the Temple was a traumatic event for Jews and Christians alike. Jews 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 is not to discredit Judaism with Christianity, but rather to illustrate how the ministry and mission of Jesus fulfills the functions of the temple cult and supersedes it.

Chapter 11 of Hebrews comes after the conclusion of these arguments. The disciples are called to live faithfully in an uncertain time. There are no eschatological markers (such as the Temple) to indicate where they stand in relation to the consummation of God’s reign. The day might be just around the corner, but it is more likely somewhere further out into the indefinite future. The disciples must therefore accept their current status as aliens in a hostile land awaiting the country God is preparing for them. In this respect, they are following in the train of a long list of Israelite heroes whose faith sustained them and who died without seeing the realization of their hope. Abraham is raised up as a primary example of faith which is “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” Vs. 1. In obedience to God’s call, Abraham set out for a land he had never seen on the strength of a promise whose fulfillment was humanly impossible.

Verses 13-16 make the point that neither Abraham nor the other Hebrew heroes of faith were truly at home. They had received the promise of a homeland more real to them than the land of their sojourning. Precisely because their lives were pattered after the ways of this anticipated homeland, they were constantly at odds with the predominant cultures in which they lived. Such lives, lived in faith and ending in hope, became paradigms for discipleship in the early church. We see rightly, the Letter to the Hebrews tells us, only as the biblical narratives become our own stories. I think the late John Howard Yoder says it best of all in his book, Body Politics:

“Whereas contemporary dominant mental habits assume that there is ‘out there’ an objective or agreed account of reality and that faith perspectives must come to terms with that wider picture by fitting into it, as a subset of the generally unbelieving world view, I propose rather that we recognize that we are called to a believing vision of global history, suspicious of any scheme or analysis or management that would claim by itself to see the world whole or apart from faith or apart from avowing its own bias. The modern world is a subset of the world vision of the gospel, not the other way around. That means we can afford to begin with the gospel notions themselves and then work out from there, as our study has done, rather than trying to place the call of God within it.” Yoder, John Howard,  Body Politics, (c 2001, Herald Press) p. 74.

Luke 12:32–40

I am not sure what the lectionary people had in mind here. It seems as though verses 32-34 belong with verses 22-31 in which Jesus gives his sermon on God’s care for the ravens and the lilies of the field, admonishing his disciples not to live anxious and fearful lives. Verses 35-40 advance into a new topic, namely, watchfulness and readiness for the coming of the Son of Man. So it seems to me that, if one chooses to preach on the gospel, it probably will be necessary to make a choice between these two topics.

The admonitions against anxiety follow naturally from last week’s parable of the rich fool. It is just as foolish for the destitute disciples to fret over their seeming lack of necessities as it was for the man in the parable to fret over what to do with his surplus of goods. God provides for the ravens (crows) that feed on carrion. Are not the disciples of more value than these birds? So also God clothes the lilies, short lived plants that perish in a matter of days, in raiment more glorious than that of kings. Can the disciples imagine that this God will neglect them?

That sounds comforting until Jesus spells out the natural consequences. “Sell your possessions and give alms.” Vs. 33. There is no need to amass any degree of wealth if you believe what Jesus has just said about the birds and the lilies. To store up supplies for the future is to make a mockery of the prayer, “Give us this day our daily bread.” Yet accumulation is a way of life culturally ingrained upon our consciences. The financial industry impresses upon us constantly the need to save through investing, the need to plan for the indefinite future and the necessity of obtaining to that nirvana of “financial security.”  In the face of all this, obedience to Jesus in this instance appears to be highly irresponsible. So who do you believe: Jesus or the banks?  Whose word do you follow: Jesus’ or that of your financial adviser?

I cannot find an easy out for us here. Of course, there are plenty of tricks preachers have used over the years to dodge this bullet. One is the contextual argument: The society in which Jesus lived was vastly different from our own. The banking and monetary systems on which we depend did not exist. Therefore, you cannot take what Jesus said in the context of an agricultural subsistence economy and simply apply it to the economy of a modern industrialized society. So the argument goes, but I find myself asking, “Why not?” How is piling up money in the bank different from storing your surplus grain in barns? Isn’t this just a distinction without a difference?

Then, of course, we can spiritualize the text and argue that Jesus was speaking only figuratively. Selling all of your possessions means simply remaining sufficiently detached from them. That is, “have your wealth as if you had it not.” I have heard that one too. It sounds about as convincing as the drunk who insists that he is not an alcoholic because he really could quit drinking any time if he wanted to. In the end, I think this is one of many instances where Jesus tells us something about our lives, our values and our culture that we really would rather not hear.

Verses 35-40 mark an abrupt change of subject. The topic now is readiness for the coming of the Son of Man. Jesus begins by directing his hearers to “Let your loins be girded and your lamps burning.” Vs. 35. The Greek word for “loins” or “waist” is “osphus.” It refers to the locus of the reproductive organs. In the first century, garments were worn loosely around the waist without a belt while inside the home. When one went outside the home, it was customary to tie them up about the loins with a belt functioning in much the same way as a male athletic support. Thus, having “your loins be girded” was a sign of readiness for immediate departure or vigorous work. Marshall, Howard I., Commentary on Luke, New International Greek Testament Commentary, (c. 1978 The Paternoster Press, Ltd.) p. 535. There is an echo here of Moses’ instructions to the Israelites in Exodus on the eating of the first Passover meal: “In this manner you shall eat it: your loins girded, your sandals on your feet, and your staff in your hand…” Exodus 12:11. Just as the Israelites had to be prepared for God’s imminent act of liberation from Egypt, Jesus’ hearers must be prepared for the salvation God will usher in through the coming of the Son of Man.

Jesus uses the image of a man gone off to a marriage feast, leaving his slaves in charge of the house. Marriage celebrations in ancient Palestine could last for days and so the slaves would have had no way of knowing precisely when their master would return. They must therefore be ready to unlock the door and welcome him home at any time of day or night. This much is entirely plausible. But then Jesus goes on to promise that, should the master of the house find his slaves ready and waiting for him with everything in order upon his return, he will invite his slaves to sit at table and will gird himself for work and serve them. It is hard to imagine a fellow making dinner for his servants after coming home in the middle of the night from days of partying. Yet that is precisely the point. The coming of the Son of Man brings with it rewards that are beyond imagination-for those ready and waiting for it. But for those who are unprepared, the day will come like a thief, catching unprepared the householder who leaves his home unattended.

Whether the coming of the Son of Man is understood as the final event signaling the end of the age or whether one understands this coming as an event occurring throughout the life of the church, the point is the same. For those waiting with eager anticipation for that day and who have pattered their lives on obedience to the Son of Man, the coming of the Son of Man will be an occasion of unimaginable joy. For those living as though Jesus’ coming were some distant event so far in the future that it has little bearing on day-to-day life, that coming will be a rude awakening.

In some respects, this latter section of the gospel lesson ties in nicely with the lesson from Hebrews urging us to let our lives be shaped and our expectations informed by the narrative of those heroes of faith who lived in anticipation of God’s future. Make friends with God’s future now and you need not worry that it will overtake you like an ambushing foe.