Tag Archives: Assyria

Sunday, January 25th

THIRD SUNDAY AFTER EPIPHANY

Jonah 3:1-5, 10
Psalm 62:5-12
1 Corinthians 7:29-31
Mark 1:14-20

PRAYER OF THE DAY: Almighty God, by grace alone you call us and accept us in your service. Strengthen us by your Spirit, and make us worthy of your call, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.

Doesn’t it just burn you up when you see that character in the sporty little BMW cruising along in the shoulder past a mile of creeping cars like yours and then trying to merge in at the last minute-and somebody always lets him in. Always. And then there is the guy in his pickup with the Confederate flag on the back weaving in and out of traffic, passing on the right, tailgating everyone who gets in his way. Ever notice how there is never a police car in sight when that happens? Never. Worst of all is that woman whose car has only one speed, 50 MPH. That is her cruising speed whether she is in the left lane of the New Jersey Turnpike or in the middle of a school zone. Yet somehow she manages to keep her license. Meanwhile, I am writing out my check to pay the parking ticket I got because my bumper extended an inch or so over the yellow line extending from the intersection. And we wonder why people have road rage.

The prophet Jonah had a bad case of road rage. You may recall that Jonah was the reluctant prophet sent (dragged kicking and screaming, actually) to proclaim God’s judgment upon the city of Nineveh. We don’t hear about the temper tantrum he threw in our lesson for Sunday, but we are told the reason for it. God spared the evil city of Nineveh from the judgment of destruction God had decreed for it. Understand that Nineveh was the capital city of Assyria, the biggest geopolitical bully on the block for much of Israel’s history. The Assyrians destroyed the Northern Kingdom of Israel altogether and reduced the Southern Kingdom of Judah to a mere vassal state subject to military occupation and crushing taxation. The Assyrians were cruel, blood thirsty and destructive. Whatever judgment God might wreak upon their capital would be well deserved-and the sooner the better as far as Jonah was concerned. Jonah was looking forward to some big time payback.

But the story takes an unexpected turn. Jonah’s preaching succeeded as no other prophet’s preaching ever had. His words brought the proud nation of Assyria to its knees in repentance. When God saw this great communal change of heart, God also repented of the judgment intended for Nineveh. “Really?” cries Jonah. “Seriously? You destroy the city and temple of your own people and send them into exile for breaking their covenant with you. But these terrorist thugs, who don’t even know your name and have never lifted a finger to obey your law, they get off scot free just because they weep a few crocodile tears and throw a little dust on their heads. This you call justice?”

The problem with people like Jonah and me is that we are incapable of taking the long view. I see bad drivers from my own narrow perspective. I seldom ask myself what is going on in their lives. For example, the guy racing ahead of the pack to cut in further up might be responding to a call informing him that his child has been in an accident and is clinging to life in the ICU. The woman stuck at 50 MPH perhaps knows that she is not up to driving anymore, but has no one to take her shopping or to the doctor. Even wantonly reckless driving, for which there is no justification, is rooted in motives, circumstances and events I have no way of knowing or understanding. So who am I to say what is just in any of these situations?

Furthermore, who am I to demand justice? Am I willing to place my own life and conduct on the same scale of justice I want for everyone else? Do I really want to receive from God what in God’s view I deserve? If that is justice, I don’t think anybody in their right mind would ask for it. As a poet once observed, “Ain’t no one alive should have the nerve/to say we all should get what we deserve.”

Fortunately for us, God’s view of justice is a good deal more expansive than ours. We tend to view justice in terms of Anglo/American jurisprudence. It’s all a matter of rights and remedies. When you and I have a dispute, we go to court. The court determines whose rights have been violated and how much money should be paid in compensation to the injured party. Then the case is over. The court has no interest in the parties or the dispute after that. But God is deeply interested in what takes place after judgment has been entered. It is not enough that restitution be made. The parties must be reconciled before justice is done. So whether God punishes or refrains from punishing, the objective is reconciliation with God and between God’s people. Reconciliation, not payback, is always the end game.

Ironically, God seems to be having more success in that realm with the godless empire of Assyria than with his own prophet. Would that God’s prophet were as deeply moved by God’s mercy as are the people of Nineveh! Would that Jonah understood that God cares less about vindicating rights than restoring relationships. Would that the church were an island of reconciliation in a world driven mad with road rage justice.

Jonah 3:1-5, 10

The Book of Jonah is unique among the books of the prophets. Instead of a collection of oracles and speeches sometimes framed with narrative, Jonah is narrative from beginning to end with a psalm of praise thrown into the center of the book. It is the story of a prophet who, unlike the God he serves, values justice over mercy. Or, perhaps it would be more accurate to say that he values his own truncated view of justice over God’s more expansive view. Make no mistake about it, the God of the Bible (Old Testament as well as New) is no indulgent grandfather who cannot bring himself to discipline the kids as they merrily trash the house. God’s judgments have teeth, as the Babylonian exiles can attest. Nonetheless, God’s punishment is never an end in itself. If God wounds, God wounds in order to bring about healing. That insight is lost on poor Jonah.

The majority consensus of most Hebrew Scripture commentators is that the Book of Jonah was composed in the Post-Exilic period during the latter half of the 4th Century B.C.E. Neil, W. “The book of Jonah published in The Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, Vol. II ed. By George Arthur Buttrick (c. 1962 by Abington Press) p. 966. It has long been suggested that this book was written to challenge the exclusivist policies expressed in the books of Ezra and Nehemiah which went so far as to require the dissolution of marriages between Jews and persons of less than pure Jewish lineage. Ibid. But as Professor Terrence Fretheim points out, there are problems with this view. “None of the specific issues dealt with by Ezra and Nehemiah are even alluded to in the book (such as mixed marriages and mixed languages, see Nehemiah 9, 10; Ezra 9, 10).” Fretheim, Terrence, The Message of Jonah (c. 1977 by Augsburg Publishing House) p. 35. For this and other reasons, recent commentators suggest an earlier date somewhere between 475  B.C.E. and 450 B.C.E. E.g., Burrows, M., “The Literary Category of the Book of Jonah” published in Translating and Understanding the Old Testament, ed. By H. Frank & W. Reed (c. 1971 by Abingdon) p. 105. The issue appears to be more one of God’s treatment of Israel among the nations than Israel’s treatment of non-Jews within its midst, though I would add that the two issues are not entirely unrelated.

The author of this prophetic book selected the name “Jonah son of Amittai” for his protagonist. This is no random choice. In II Kings, Jonah is credited with prophesying the salvation of Israel from foreign oppression by the hand of Jeroboam II. Though Jeroboam “did what was evil in the sight of the Lord” and “made Israel to sin,” God nonetheless “saw that the affliction of Israel was very bitter…” and that “there was none to help Israel.” II Kings 14:23-26. Out of compassion God “saved [Israel] by the hand of Jeroboam the son of Joash.” II Kings 14:27. One would think that a prophet who foretold and witnessed God’s salvation of his own sinful people by the hand of their sinful king could find it in his heart to welcome the extension of that mercy to the rest of creation. But Jonah turns out to be more than a little tightfisted with God’s grace.

It is also noteworthy that no mention is made of repentance on the part of Israel in II Kings. Jonah’s preaching does not seem to have had much effect on the hearts of his own people. By contrast, the people of Nineveh are moved by Jonah’s preaching to acts of repentance never before seen in Israel or anywhere else. This is remarkable as Jonah has done everything possible so far to avoid success in Nineveh. First he tries to run away from the job. Then he preaches a sermon that is all but unintelligible. “Yet forty days and Nineveh will be overthrown.” That’s it. The whole sermon. Jonah does not tell the people of Nineveh why they are going to be overthrown, who is going to overthrow them or whether there is anything they can possibly do to avoid being overthrown. Nevertheless, the word of the Lord somehow breaks through the prophet’s few and feeble words. Somehow, the people discover the depth of their sin and, more marvelously still, they begin to suspect that the God under whose judgment they stand has a merciful heart. Jonah is a wildly successful prophet in spite of himself!

The reading tells us that God “repented” of all that God intended to do at Nineveh. Does God change God’s mind? Yes and no. God will never cease loving God’s creation; God will never give up on God’s people; God will never abandon God’s plan to redeem creation. In that sense, it is quite proper to say that God’s will is eternally predestined and not subject to change. It is also true that God’s creation is in constant flux requiring God’s love for it to change shape, adapt to new circumstances and express itself in different ways. To that extent, it is fair to say that God changes, adapts and even “repents.”

Psalm 62:5-12

This psalm is classified as a “Psalm of Trust,” though I think it has elements of lament as well. The psalmist is clearly in a difficult situation with former friends having turned against him. Indeed, they press him so hard that he feels like “a leaning wall, a tottering fence.” Vs. 3 (not in the reading). These “friends” are perfidious, flattering him with their speech while inwardly cursing him and plotting to “cast him down.” Vs. 4 (not in the reading). This is the context in which we need to view the verses making up our lesson.

The psalmist does not respond in kind to his foes. S/he does not respond to them at all. Instead, s/he waits in silence for God who is his/her true hope. Vs. 5. God is the psalmist’s “rock.” Vs. 6. In order to understand the full impact of this assertion, we need to back up to verse 4 which is not in our reading. There the psalmist accuses his foes of planning to “bring down a person of eminence.” This translation does not do justice to the Hebrew which states that these enemies are seeking to bring the psalmist down from his “height,” meaning a “rock” or defensive “tower.” Rogerson, J.W. and McKay, J.W., Psalms 51-100, The Cambridge Bible Commentary (c. 1977 by Cambridge University Press) p. 62. Thus, verse 6 replies that the psalmist’s “rock” and “fortress” is God. Though the psalmist may be a “leaning wall” and a “tottering fence,” the “rock” upon which s/he takes his/her stand is sure. The psalmist’s deliverance comes not from outwitting his enemies at their own game or in employing against them the same venomous and hateful stratagems they use on him/her, but in God’s anticipated salvation. vs. 7.

In verse 8 the psalmist turns to admonish his fellow worshipers to likewise place their faith in God and to pour out their hearts before him. Vs. 8. Human power and wealth is illusory. Vs. 9. Extortion and robbery do not lead to any true and lasting security. Wealth may be enjoyed, but never trusted to provide security. Vs. 10. Verse 11 continues the admonition with a numerical formula found frequently throughout biblical “wisdom literature:” “One thing God has spoken, twice have I heard this…” So also in the Book of Proverbs, “There are six things that the Lord hates, seven that are an abomination to him: haughty eyes, a lying tongue, and hands that shed innocent blood, a heart that devises wicked plans, feet that hurry to run to evil, a lying witness who testifies falsely, and one who sows discord in a family.” Proverbs 6:16-19. A similar construction is used by Amos in his prophetic oracles: “Thus says the Lord: For three transgressions of Damascus, and for four, I will not revoke the punishment; because they have threshed Gilead with threshing-sledges of iron. So I will send a fire on the house of Hazael, and it shall devour the strongholds of Ben-hadad. I will break the gate-bars of Damascus and cut off the inhabitants from the Valley of Aven, and the one who holds the scepter from Beth-eden; and the people of Aram shall go into exile to Kir, says the Lord.” Amos 1:3-5. See also Amos 1:6-2:8. Here the construction serves to emphasize the two inseparable truths: All true power belongs to God and, equally important, so does “steadfast love.” Vs. 11-12.

The psalm complements our lesson from Jonah in emphasizing how God’s steadfast love drives and shapes the expression of God’s power. The saving power of God is contrasted here with the malicious exercise of raw power against the psalmist by his/her enemies. Love is finally the only power worth having and the only power worthy of trust.

1 Corinthians 7:29-31

This is a rather gloomy chunk of scripture. Paul seems to be giving advice to young unmarried people, the sum and substance of which is “married is good, but single is better.” Significantly, Paul begins this discussion with a disclaimer: “I have no command of the Lord, but I give my opinion as one who by the Lord’s mercy is trustworthy.” Vs. 25. I am not sure what Paul means when he speaks of the “present distress.” Vs. 26. I don’t get the impression that the church in Corinth is experiencing the kind of hostility and persecution we hear about in Philippi, Thessalonica and Ephesus. I get the impression that Paul is alluding not to any local source of distress, but rather to the general distress growing out of the fact that “the form of this world is passing away.” Vs. 31.

One simple explanation for this reading lies in attributing to Paul the mistaken notion that the end of the world was imminent. Of course, if the world is ending tomorrow it makes little sense to marry, bear children and build a home. Time would be better spent preparing for the end and getting the word of the gospel out while there is still time. Marriage and other family attachments only hinder one’s effectiveness as a disciple of Jesus. Anyone who follows this blog knows that I do not believe Jesus, Paul or any of the other New Testament authors held any such view. I don’t believe there ever was a “crisis” in the church precipitated by the “delay of Christ’s return.”

I believe that the “present distress” arises from what Paul describes in his letter to the Romans as “the whole creation…groaning in travail together until now…” as “we who have the fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies.” Romans 8:22-23. The pains of dissolution for the old order are the birth pangs for the new. God is at work in the world’s turmoil bringing the new creation to birth. In much the same way, God’s Spirit is at work in our dying to self and rising to Christ as we live out our discipleship within the Body of Christ. Marriage is an exclusive relationship of intimacy that is, at least potentially, at odds with the disciple’s relationship of intimate love between members of the whole Body of Christ described in I Corinthians 13. It is very telling that this “love chapter” is a favorite for weddings, though it has nothing to do with marriage and everything to do with the church! While Paul clearly believes that marriage is both legitimate and capable of integration into the larger community of love within Christ’s Body, he nevertheless believes that life in Christ will be a good deal simpler and easier for the single than for the married-at least for those who can handle being single.

Once again, this is by Paul’s own admission his own personal view colored by his experience as a single person. I choose to treat it as just that. Great for Paul and others like him, but not so much for the rest of us. For all of us, though, the text is a reminder that nothing of the world as we know it is permanent. Neither marriage, nor one’s profession, nor one’s accomplishments are eternal. When we treat them as if they were, we cross over into the sin of idolatry.

Mark 1:14-20

There are three important imperatives introduced in verses 14-15: 1) The time is fulfilled; 2) repent; and 3) believe the good news. The New Testament uses two Greek words for what the English versions translate as “time.” “Kronos” means chronological time measureable in days, weeks and years. “Kairos” means time in the sense of “the time has come” or “it’s about time.” A kairos moment is a defining one, such as Pearl Harbor for my parent’s generation; the assassination of President Kennedy in my own; and the 9/11 attack for that of my children. Kairos time changes the trajectory of history, propelling us into new directions. Mark uses the word “kairos” indicating that this moment within chronological time proclaimed by Jesus is special. It is a time such as the Exodus-a time in which God exercises saving power propelling the world in the direction of God’s redemptive intent for it. This time is “at hand” (“eggizo” in Greek). The verb means to approach, or draw near. Mark uses it in the “aorist” tense which is like our past tense only stronger in that it denotes completed action.

This Kairos moment of Jesus’ in-breaking upon the society of Israel coincides with John the Baptist’s arrest. The relationship between the ministry of John and that of Jesus is not worked out in Mark to the extent that it is in the other gospels, though Mark does intimate that John’s role is similar if not identical to Elijah’s eschatological task of “restoring all things.” Mark 9:11-13. See also Malachi 4:5-6. The identification of Jesus’ rising with John’s arrest might also emphasizes the newness of all that Jesus represents. As we will see in the story of the Transfiguration, the focus now is neither upon Moses (the law) nor Elijah (the prophets), but upon God’s beloved Son. Mark 9:2-8.

The term “kingdom of God” is not an apt translation of Mark’s meaning in verse 15. Just as we have come to identify “church” as a building with a steeple, so we have come to view the kingdom of God as a place. Too often the kingdom is equated with some very unbiblical conceptions of “heaven.” The better translation might be “the reign of God” or the “sovereignty of God.” Thus, when Jesus declares that God’s reign has drawn near, he means that God’s sovereignty is pressing in and making itself felt. The only appropriate response to this new reality is repentance and faith.

Repent (metanoeo in Greek) is not all about feeling remorse or guilt. Literally, the word means simply “to turn around.” It refers to a radical change of heart; a turning toward God’s call away from one’s old way of living. The word Mark uses for “believe” is the Greek word “pisteuo,” meaning “to trust,” or “have confidence in” someone or something. “Good news” (“euggelion” in the Greek) means just that. Sometimes translated “gospel,” it refers to a royal proclamation with kingly authority behind it. In this case, of course, the authority behind the good news is God. Mark makes clear that Jesus’ appearance on the stage of history inaugurates the reign of God.

While there is never any mention of the church in Mark’s gospel, it is powerfully present throughout in the community of disciples called into existence by Jesus’ proclamation of God’s reign. The church is less an institution than a gathering that springs into existence wherever Jesus speaks and acts. It is hardly coincidental that the calling of the first disciples comes as Jesus embarks upon his mission.

The renowned New Testament scholar Rudolph Bultmann believes that this story about the call of the four disciples is a “biographical apothegm,” that is, an idealized story of faith inspired by the early Christian metaphor, “fishers of men.” Bultmann, Rudolf, The History of the Synoptic Tradition, (c. 1963 by Blackwell, Oxford, pub. by Harper & Row) p. 56. By contrast, commentator Vincent Taylor views this story as an actual historical reminiscence of the disciples preserved in the preaching of the New Testament church. Taylor, Vincent, The Gospel According to St. Mark, (Second Ed.) Thornapple Commentaries (c. 1966 by Vincent Taylor, pub. by Baker Book House Co.) p. 168. Naturally, there are all shades of opinion in between.

While slightly more interesting than most cocktail chat, the conversation does not strike me as particularly important. The issue is not whether and to what extent the gospels can be relied upon to provide the so called “objective historical data” we imagine to be so critical. The real question is whether or not the New Testament “got Jesus right.” If it did, it matters not one wit how the gospel narrative is weighed by our rather antiquated 19th Century notions of what constitutes “history.” If the New Testament got Jesus wrong, then we shall have to embark upon that seemingly endless quest for the “historical Jesus.” For all who wish to undertake this journey, I wish you the best of luck. While you are out there, see if you can find the Iraqi weapons of mass destruction, Barak Obama’s Kenyon birth certificate and the bodies of those three aliens whose spaceship crashed at Roswell.

The compelling lure of Jesus’ call to discipleship and the repentance and faith it elicits find concrete expression in the response of the four fishermen. Hooker, Morna, D., The Gospel According to Saint Mark, Black’s New Testament Commentaries (c. 1991 by Morna D. Hooker, pub. by Hendrickson Publishers, Inc.) p. 59, pp. 60-61. Andrew and Peter leave their nets, valuable income producing property, on the lake shore to follow Jesus. James and John leave their father and his business, their own future livelihood, to answer Jesus’ call. While the fishermen were hardly wealthy, they were not poverty stricken either. They were men who had established themselves in a life sustaining craft. It cannot be said that they flocked to Jesus out of sheer desperation. They left behind a reasonably secure existence for the sake of God’s reign. As Hooker points out, Peter’s boast in Mark 10:28 is not an idle one. Ibid at p. 61.

This story has always proven to be problematic for the post-Constantine church whose role has been to provide ideological support for commerce, the family and all of the other critical institutions of the empire. Our Lutheran doctrine of the “two kingdoms” epitomizes the schizophrenic consequences of trying to pour the new wine of God’s reign into the old skins of Caesar’s empire. In theory, God has two hands. With one, God offers salvation by grace through faith by the work of the church. With the other hand, God ordains civil governments to maintain a semblance of order in a sinful world so that the work of the church can flourish unhindered by violence, chaos and oppression. Sounds good on paper, but when you raise a young person for eighteen years to love enemies, forgive wrongs and to view all people as persons created in God’s image and then turn him over to the armed forces to be made into a killing machine-what you get is PTSD. To a lesser degree, we have highly conflicted individuals in professions like law, business and medicine designed to generate profit whatever else their guiding principles might say. Sending young people into this jungle with instructions to practice their professions for Jesus may help boost sales for valium, but does little to promote discipleship or proclaim the reign of God.

In this day and age, the empire has figured out that it can get along famously without the church. Individuals over the last several decades have been making the same discovery and leaving us in droves. Instead of inducing institutional panic, this development ought to be greeted with thanksgiving. Now that we are finally free from having to prop up Caesar’s kingdom, we can hear anew the call of Jesus to live under God’s gentle and peaceful reign.

Sunday, February 16th

SIXTH SUNDAY AFTER EPIPHANY

Deuteronomy 30:15–20
Psalm 119:1–8
1 Corinthians 3:1–9
Matthew 5:21–37

O God, the strength of all who hope in you, because we are weak mortals we accomplish nothing good without you. Help us to see and understand the things we ought to do, and give us grace and power to do them, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.

Two men were seated in a darkened movie theater. One, Curtis Reeves, a retired police captain with a distinguished record of public service. The other, Chad Oulson, a husband and father of a young toddler. Both men were gainfully employed, taxpaying citizens enjoying an American entertainment staple-going to the movies. A dispute arose over Oulson’s use of a cell phone as the movie was starting. Reeves complained. Oulson ignored him. Reeves became increasingly vocal in his complaints. Oulson turned to confront him. Tempers flared. Oulson threw his popcorn on Reeves. Reeves pulled out a revolver and shot Oulson, killing him and wounding his wife.

How did this trivial dispute over theater etiquette erupt into a violent confrontation ending in death? I suspect testosterone had something to do with it. A young man is insulted and disrespected in front of his wife. An older man, having been an authority figure all his life, finds his authority ignored and finally challenged. Each feels his manhood is on the line. Neither can afford to back down. They are both trapped in a spiral of escalating anger taking them where I suspect neither of them really wanted to go. The end, I am sure, is not what either Reeves or Oulson could have imagined.

Anger is a dangerous emotion. When it seizes control, it robs a person of rationality and common sense. When people are angry, they make rash statements they later regret. They make poor decisions. In the extreme, anger leads to violence. At the dawn of history Cain became angry with his brother Abel. God warned Cain with these words: “Why are you angry, and why has your countenance fallen? If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin is couching at the door; its desire is for you, but you must master it.” Genesis 4:6-7. Tragically, Cain could no more master his anger than could Reeves and Oulson. So history began with brother murdering brother out of anger. And so it continues.

Jesus was right on the mark when he equated anger with murder. The latter frequently follows upon the former. Relatively few murders are committed in “cold blood.” There is almost always provocation of some sort, either real or imagined. For that reason, Jesus counsels his disciples to nip anger in the bud. The time for reconciliation is when anger first rears its ugly head. If you have reason to believe that someone is angry at you or you become aware of anger against someone else, drop what you are doing-even if you are in the middle of prayer-and be reconciled. The earlier anger is quenched, the less time it has to breed hatred and violence.

There is no place for anger in the church. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer points out, “Jesus will not accept the common distinction between righteous indignation and anger.” Bonhoeffer, Dietrich, Cost of Discipleship, (c. 1959 SCM Press Ltd.) p. 143. Jesus meant for his community of disciples to be an “anger free zone.” Reconciliation requires us to put ourselves into the skin of the very person with whom reconciliation is sought; to see ourselves through his/her eyes; to be ready and willing to let go of our anger. I cannot do that on my own. I am too blinded by my rage; too convinced of the rightness of my own cause; too hurt and fearful to expose my wounds to those I feel have injured me. I need a community of honesty and truthful speech to help me diagnose the source of my deep seated anger. Before I can risk reconciliation, I need to know that I am embraced by the Body of Christ where I can be certain that the sins brought to light in the process of confession will be forgiven. The church is the one place where anger must not be allowed the last word. It is the place where anger is recognized, exposed, confessed, forgiven and reconciled out of existence.

Deuteronomy 30:15–20

This lesson is for people on the brink of a new frontier. The Book of Deuteronomy is Moses’ final word to the people of Israel as they are encamped on the borders of the Promised Land. Life is about to change for the people of Israel. They will no longer have Moses to lead them. Moses, of course, has been leading the people for half a century. He confronted Pharaoh, King of Egypt on their behalf speaking God’s demand for Israel’s release from slavery. He led Israel out of Egypt and to the brink of the Red Sea where God defeated Pharaoh’s armies decisively. Moses was God’s spokesperson bringing down from Mt. Sinai the words of the covenant that would shape Israel’s new life of freedom. He was with the people throughout their wanderings in the wilderness. Now Moses addresses the people for one last time before they reach their long awaited destination.

The Book of Deuteronomy is connected with the reform movement undertaken during the reign of King Josiah. See II Kings 22-23. Though reportedly triggered by the rediscovery of “the book of the law” during the course of renovating Jerusalem’s temple (II Kings 22:8-13), the teachings of Deuteronomy reflect much of the preaching against idolatry and injustice found in the writings of the prophets. The Book of Deuteronomy itself therefore represents more than whatever might have been discovered in the temple. It is rather a reinterpretation of the ancient Mosaic covenant with Israel in light of centuries of prophetic preaching and bitter experience of Israel’s failure to live faithfully within that covenant under the pressures and temptations of nationhood. More than likely, the Book of Deuteronomy is the product of a few authors working with various ancient traditions brought together by the final author/editor into the single canonical narrative we have today.

The decline of Assyrian influence in the near east at the end of the 7th Century gave the Southern Kingdom of Judah breathing room to rebuild and re-assert its independence from imperial control. The writers and editors of Deuteronomy saw this geopolitical development as Judah’s opportunity for a fresh start and a new beginning. Drawing upon the wisdom of the Mosaic covenant, they retold Israel’s story in such a way as to inspire hope for the dawn of this new day and to warn of the temptations they knew were lying ahead.

It seems we are always on the frontier of something. Seniors in high school look forward with anticipation to June which holds for them a new existence, whether in college, the workforce, the armed forces or, sadly, the increasingly challenging search for work. Embarking on married life is a similar departure into unknown territory. Those of us beginning to feel the aches and pains of aging bodies understand that we finally will face the ultimate frontier where we will be compelled to rely upon the steadfast love of our Good Shepherd more than ever before. Each frontier holds both promise and threat; possibilities and temptations; invitations to faith and the danger of unbelief. In each instance, we are faced with life and death decisions. Whether we are the children of Israel at the border of Canaan, the nation of Judah picking itself up again after years of foreign domination, or churches here in the Meadowlands struggling to understand how to be the church in a society that no longer needs the church; God’s people are always at the edge of some new frontier. Moses’ admonition: Chose life. Vs. 19. Cleave to God; obey God; trust God. Remember both who and whose you are.

Moses promises prosperity and wellbeing for the people should they choose obedience to the covenant and destruction should they disobey. As noted in last week’s post on Psalm 112, this testimony is true as far as it goes. The commandments were given to order life around faithfulness to God and love of neighbor. In a community shaped by these commands, faithfulness is rewarded with blessing. But no community is ever so thoroughly shaped by the covenant that it is free from injustice. Moreover, when the people of God are thrown into historical circumstances where the covenant community is shattered and the covenant no longer carries any weight, this simple equation breaks down altogether. This is what Walter Brueggeman would call the “state of disorientation” where faithfulness results not in blessing, but in suffering, persecution and even death. Brueggeman, Walter, The Message of the Psalms, (c. 1984 Augsburg Publishing House) p. 52. The Books of Ecclesiastes and Job as well as many of the lament Psalms afford a corrective, reminding us that very often the faithful suffer grievously even as the wicked prosper. The ultimate test of faith, then, comes when faithfulness seems ineffective, futile and even counterproductive. It is precisely this sort of faith to which Jesus calls his disciples in the Sermon on the Mount.

Psalm 119:1–8

Psalm 119 is the longest chapter in the Bible with no less than 176 verses. It is also just two chapters away from the shortest chapter in the Bible, Psalm 117, which is a mere two verses. So much for Bible trivia.

Like Psalm 112 from last week, Psalm 119 is an acrostic poem. However, instead of each line beginning with a successive letter of the Hebrew alphabet, Psalm 119 is made up of twenty-two 8 verse sections in which each line begins with the same letter of the alphabet. Sunday’s reading consists of the first section in which each of the 8 verses begin with the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet, “aleph.” The next section has each verse beginning with the next Hebrew letter, “beth.” So it goes for twenty more sections through the rest of the Hebrew alphabet ending in the letter “tav.” Thus, if the composition sometimes appears a bit strained, remember that the psalmist is working within the confines of a stringent poetic form. Anyone who has ever attempted to compose a sonnet in the form utilized by Shakespeare will understand.

Though characterized as a “wisdom” psalm by most scholars, Psalm 119 has elements of praise as well as lament. Old Testament Professor, Artur Weiser gives this psalm a rather short and dismissive evaluation: “This psalm, the most comprehensive of all the psalms, is a particularly artificial product of religious poetry. It shares with Psalms 9, 10, 111 and others the formal feature of the alphabetic acrostic, with the difference, however, that here the initial letter remains the same for each of the eight lines of a section. In accordance with the number of the letters of the Hebrew alphabet twenty-two such ‘poems’ are joined together; these, however, neither show a consistent thought-sequence one with another nor represent units complete in themselves. This formal external character of the psalm stifles its subject-matter. The psalm is a many-coloured mosaic of thoughts which are often repeated in wearisome fashion…” Weiser, Artur, The Psalms, A Commentary, The Old Testament Library (c. 1962 S.C.M. Press, Ltd.) p. 739.

I think the good professor’s cursory treatment is unwarranted. Though admittedly lacking in chronologically progressive order, the psalm revolves constantly around the Torah experienced by the psalmist as reliable guide, faithful companion, relentless judge, purifying fire and source of endless joy. It has a way of drawing the reader into deeper contemplation that is anything but “wearisome.” I think that Brueggeman rightly recognizes this psalm as “a massive intellectual achievement” through which the psalmist affirms that the Torah meets us at every stage of life addressing every human experience from “A to Z,” or more precisely “alpeh to tav.” Brueggeman, opcit. p. 40. Much is lost in translation through the rendering of “Torah” as “law.” Torah is far more than a dry set of laws, statutes and ordinances. For Israel, Torah was the shape of the covenant; “the mode of God’s life giving presence.” Ibid. It was “a launching pad form which to mount an ongoing conversation with God through daily experience.” Ibid. p. 41. Still, “[i]t is Yahweh who is the portion of the speaker (v. 57), not the Torah nor one’s keeping of the Torah.” Ibid. The psalm finally recognizes that Torah is the medium through which prayer is made possible. As a rabbi friend once remarked, “the Torah is the rope in an extended tug-of-war. We continue to pull on it because we firmly believe there is One on the other end with whom we are in constant tension.”

The first eight verses of Psalm 119 making up our reading begin with a proclamation of blessing for those who walk in the Torah of the Lord. This is a good reminder that genuine prayer arises out of our covenant relationship with Israel’s God into which us gentile folks come through baptism. It is only because God speaks that prayer is possible. Prayer is always responsive. It does not presume upon unfettered access to God as a matter of right, but seizes upon God’s commands and promises as grounds for praise, petition and lament. It is for this reason that the Psalms are the best possible resource for learning to pray. Reading one every morning and one each night is the best medicine I know. That said, I think it is permissible to break up Psalm 119 into a few days.

1 Corinthians 3:1–9

Last week in I Corinthians 1 and 2 the Apostle Paul was contrasting the spirit of divisiveness at work in the Corinthian church with the Spirit of God who forms in the church “the mind of Christ.” I Corinthians 1:10-17; I Corinthians 2:14-16. In this Sunday’s reading Paul goes on to explain that he has been unable to address the Corinthian church as spiritual people because they are still people of “flesh.” Like nursing infants, they are not ready for the solid food of the “hidden wisdom of God.” I Corinthians 2:6-8. Here it is worth noting that Paul uses the Greek word for flesh (“sarkos”) to describe people whose minds are dominated by worldly ways and, more specifically, the sort of divisiveness and strife that characterizes pagan culture in Corinth. This “fleshly” thinking is informing the conduct of the congregation, preventing it from growing into the mind of Christ and functioning as Christ’s Body.

Many misguided criticisms have been made of Paul for disparaging the human body and the physical world with a dualistic theology valuing spirit over matter. Paul does no such thing. In fact, Paul’s favorite expression for the church is “the Body of Christ.” This is not the sort of expression you would expect from a world hating gnostic! How could someone holding the body in contempt simultaneously speak of that body as “the temple of the Holy Spirit?” I Corinthians 6:19. When Paul speaks critically of “the flesh” he is not disparaging the human body or the material world. He is instead referring to an attitude, outlook, worldview dominated by selfishness and the will to power.

Paul points out that the apostolic witness is united in its testimony to Christ. The focus should not be upon the individual apostles who have ministered at Corinth. Just as the apostles, Apollos, Cephas and Paul work in concert, one evangelizing for Christ, another nourishing for Christ; so the church ought to be living in harmony through Christ. At the end of the day, the one who plants, the one who waters and the one who reaps can each be replaced. It is God who gives the growth. Paul is laying the foundation here for his extensive discussion of the church as the Body of Christ and the unity in love necessary to sustain it, all to be presented in the coming chapters.

Matthew 5:21–37

In this Sunday’s gospel lesson Jesus goes on to explain what he meant in last week’s reading when he told his disciples that, unless their righteousness exceeded that of the scribes and the Pharisees, they would never enter the kingdom of heaven. He does so by taking the Ten Commandments and turning them up on high heat. For the rest of Matthew 5, Jesus will be employing the same formula repeatedly: “You have heard that it was said….but I say to you.” Jesus will finally point out that all the law and the prophets boil down to love of God and love of neighbor. But that is no slackening of the law. To the contrary, love demands even more than the letter of the law can deliver.

The Commandment forbids killing. There is a good deal of literature in which Old Testament scholars bicker over whether the commandment should be interpreted “Thou shalt not kill” or whether it should be rendered “thou shalt not commit murder.” But Jesus renders that sterile debate moot. So far from taking a human life, the disciple must not even harbor anger or engage in name calling. Vss. 21-22. Moreover, it is not enough merely to hold one’s peace. A disciple is under obligation to seek reconciliation with a person s/he knows to have a grudge against him or her.

“So if you are offering your gift at the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled with your brother, and then come and offer your gift.” Vss. 23-24. The sacrifice envisioned here is not an obligatory one, but a voluntary one expressing devotion or thanksgiving and the desire to draw near to God. Nolland, John, The Gospel of Matthew, The New International Greek Testament Commentary (c. 2005 Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.) p. 232. The point made here is that devotion to God cannot be divorced from the disciple’s relationship to his or her neighbor. As will be made clear in Jesus’ parable of the last judgment, God is rightly served chiefly through caring for one’s neighbor. Matthew 25:31-46.

Next Jesus addresses the commandment against adultery. It is noteworthy that the focus here is exclusively on men. This is because, technically speaking, adultery was a crime of one man against another. A woman was regarded as in some sense the property of her husband and, as such, not an independent agent. That would not necessarily make her blameless by any means, but the assumption seems to be that the male bears primary responsibility for the crime and for its prevention. In a culture such as our own where women are increasingly on a par with their male counterparts in all areas of life, the injunction against lust and the responsibility for adultery attach to them as well. That said, there remains a significant power imbalance between men and women leading to abuse ranging from verbal sexual harassment to rape in numerous venues. Perhaps, then, it is premature to adjust the focus of this text overly much.

A word or two about “lust” is in order. Lust should not be equated with sexual attraction. It is rather a ruthless desire to possess and control with no recognition of the rights, needs or welfare of the other. Instead of building up and supporting faltering marriages, lust preys upon them. Indeed, it is the nature of lust to exploit the weak and vulnerable. While rape is the most blatant and ugly expression of lust, it can also masquerade as love and compassion-such as when a pastor, counselor or therapist sexually exploits a parishioner/patient.

Lust is not limited to sexuality. Indeed, our culture’s insatiable appetite for consumer goods from iphones to the latest clothing is perhaps the most destructive form of lust in existence. Our opulence is leading to the relentless exploitation of our planet and the poorest and most vulnerable communities inhabiting it. Given the danger lust poses to the bonds of trust and faithfulness needed to sustain community, it is not surprising that Jesus calls for extreme measures to prevent its taking hold.

Given the prevalence of divorce in our culture, Jesus’ treatment of the subject makes for some uneasiness in the pews of just about every congregation. When attempting to interpret this passage in our present context, one needs to keep in mind the status of women in Jesus’ day. As previously explained, a woman was typically considered in some sense the property of a man. If she was unmarried, she belonged to her father. If married, to her husband. The means of self-support for independent women were few and not enviable. A woman divorced from her husband and rejected by her father was in a plight as desperate as the woman widowed without grown children to support her. Therefore, to divorce one’s wife usually consigned her to a life of abject poverty-or worse. Not surprisingly, then, Jesus did not look kindly upon casual divorce and remarriage as it constituted a thin legal gloss for adultery and abandonment. There is, we must acknowledge, a difference between such casual divorce and a divorce in which both partners agree or are made to take responsibility for each other’s financial well-being and that of any children of the marriage.

That having been said, there remains every reason to support marriages and discourage divorce. Unfortunately, efforts by religious groups to preserve marriage have frequently focused on making divorce more difficult. Resistance to so-called “no fault” divorce was strong in the 60s and 70s. The failure of marriages, however, has less to do with laws facilitating divorce and more to do with the breakdown of community resulting in young families having to locate in areas where they are virtual strangers left to struggle with family pressures on their own. Extended families, affiliations with church/synagogue, stable neighborhoods and social organizations fostering friendship and support are now the exception rather than the rule for many young couples. Economic insecurity and unemployment add to these strains. We need to recognize that failing marriages are not the cause, but the symptom of a failing society and address the disease rather than focusing on the symptom.

“Do not swear at all…” Vs. 33. How many times haven’t you heard it said: “To be perfectly frank with you…” “Let me be honest with you…” “To tell you the truth…” Sometimes I am tempted to respond to these prefaces by remarking, “So, now you are being honest with me. Does that mean you have been lying through your teeth for the last ten minutes of this conversation? Are you not always honest when you talk to me? That is the problem with oaths. The fact that you feel the need to take one indicates that you know your word is not trustworthy enough and that you need to invoke the threat of divine punishment in order to make other people believe what you are saying. Jesus maintains that, since a disciple is aware that every word spoken is said in the presence of God, an oath is not necessary. No speech should ever be anything less than truthful.

Truthful speech is a habit of the heart. It is not an inborn trait. In fact, deception is our default behavior. The most dangerous lies are the ones we tell ourselves to assuage guilt, justify hurtful actions and rationalize plans that we know deep down are selfish, self-serving and destructive to others. In my former life as an attorney, I listened to hundreds of people lie under oath. Most of them would probably have passed a polygraph test with flying colors. That is because when we tell ourselves a lie often enough, we begin to believe it. It becomes the truth for us. The same thing happens collectively. When a lie is repeated again and again and again on television, radio and over the internet, it gains traction no matter how demonstrably false it might be. Advertisers and political campaign managers realize this and have made productive us of it. Honesty is an empty virtue among people who have lost the ability to discern the truth.

Nobody understands the difficult art of learning to tell the truth better than a recovering addict who has gone through a twelve step program. Regaining and maintaining sobriety requires an unflinching commitment to telling the truth in the company of people equally committed to that goal. The fact is, we are all addicts to the lies we tell to comfort ourselves. What we need is to be accepted into a community dedicated to truthful speech where our lies can be laid bare and rejected; where through repentance and forgiveness we begin to see ourselves as we truly are and our God as he truly is. That community is called church.

There are more sermons in this gospel lessen than one can shake a stick at. It is best just to choose one and run with it.

Sunday, December 22nd

FOURTH SUNDAY OF ADVENT

Isaiah 7:10–16
Psalm 80:1–7, 17–19
Romans 1:1–7
Matthew 1:18–25

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

I don’t put much stock in dreams. More than half the time I can’t remember them on waking. The only dreams I do remember are the recurring ones. The most frequent of these is my dream about being back in college. An exam is coming up in a class that I have neglected all semester. I find myself in my dorm room or in the library or the student lounge surrounded by books and articles I have not read and some scribbled notes from the few classes I attended. Somehow, I must extract enough knowledge and understanding to survive the final examination. But there is too much to absorb in too little time. I wake up in a state of high anxiety.

Not surprisingly, this particular dream seems to afflict me at times when I am behind in my work with a looming deadline on the horizon. The interpretation is obvious. I am under stress. The dream doesn’t tell me anything I don’t already know. Or does it? Thus far, I have been fairly successful in meeting life’s deadlines. In spite of procrastination, some poor planning and my tendency to bite off more than I can chew, somehow I always have managed to finish up with the important things. But that won’t always be the case. Time finally will run out on me and I will be left with tasks undone. So perhaps my dream is telling me something. Maybe this is a subtle message about priorities. “You cannot finish everything. So what are the tasks that must be completed in the time you have left? What should be the focus of your time, energy and resources for the last couple of decades (God willing) of your life?”

In today’s gospel lesson Joseph has a dream that throws a monkey wrench into his well considered plans to break off his engagement to Mary quietly so that she can marry the father of her child. It seemed like the best solution to this embarrassing and painful situation. Mary could be with the man she truly loved. Her child would have a home. Joseph would be able to get on with his life. But Joseph’s dream reveals to him that things are not what they seem. The Spirit of God is deeply involved with what appears on the surface to be just another story of betrayal and unfaithfulness. There is more here than meets the eye, a mystery compelling Joseph to abandon his well considered plans and take Mary as his wife.

The Spirit of God is forever challenging us to look beneath the surface and discover the truth often concealed by our careless judgments and hastily drawn conclusions.  Dreams and visions rescue us from our bondage to a two dimensional universe where dialogue is increasingly cramped into shallow texts, tweets and Facebook posts. They challenge us to look past the news mediated through sound bites and interpreted for us by the angry rhetoric of talk show hosts. They call us to discern in what we see and hear the complex, layered and nuanced stories of real people in real life contexts. The gospel lesson reminds us that the truth is always more than the sum of the facts; that God is at work in all human affairs-even the scandalous, tragic and horrific events from which we instinctively turn away in anger, revulsion or disgust. In the midst of the worst imaginable catastrophe, God is at work striving for redemption. Emanuel. God is with us.

Isaiah 7:10–16

Imagine that you are a twenty year old prince growing up in a nation that has not seen war in a generation. Of course, you have heard rumors about the growth of the Assyrian Empire and its expansionist policies. But Assyria lies far to the north. Several nations stand between your country and the empire. Assyria is not seen as an immediate threat. Suddenly, your father dies and you find yourself king. No sooner do you ascend the throne than you are confronted with a military crisis. Several of your neighboring kings hand you an ultimatum: join with them in a military coalition against Assyria or face war with all of them. You have three choices, none of them good. You can join the coalition, which seems doomed to defeat, and then face the destructive wrath of Assyria. You can resist the coalition and stand your ground against the bellicose threats of your neighbors-a doubtful proposition for a nation whose army is practiced in little more than marching in parades. Or you can act preemptively. You can reach out to Assyria and offer to become its vassal state. That way, you gain Assyrian protection from your enemies and preserve your throne. Such protection comes at a cost, however. Assyria will demand a punishing tribute that must be financed through taxation of your people. You will also be required to erect a shrine to Assyria’s god Asshur in the Temple of Jerusalem. That will offend the priests and rile up the prophets. But they must be made to understand that these measures are diplomatic necessities, matters of national security over which the crown exercises sole authority.

Enter, the prophet Isaiah. There is a fourth way, he says, that you have not considered. Do you not recall how God intervened to give Sarah and Abraham a son when their line seemed doomed to extinction? Do you not understand that you live and breathe only because God faithfully kept his promise to this patriarchal couple? Do you not remember how God intervened to rescue your ancestors from slavery in Egypt and bring them into the land where you now live? How then is it that you have come to believe in a world driven solely by geopolitical forces? How is it that you have made your decisions in such a way as to leave no room for the saving intervention of the God you have to thank for the land you live in?

That is precisely the situation in which we find King Ahaz in our lesson from Isaiah. He has chosen to seek refuge from Assyria and accept all of the attending consequences. This, he maintains, is the least offensive of three bad choices. Isaiah urges the prophet to reconsider. There is another choice the king can make; a faithful choice; a life giving choice. “Take heed, be quiet, and do not fear.” The prophet begs the king to ask for a sign of God’s faithfulness, but the king replies: “I will not ask, and I will not put the Lord to the test.” Vs. 12. This seemingly pious response is in fact a curt dismissal. The king is a Niebuhrian realist. Faith has no place in geopolitics. The Sermon on the Mount is all well and good when it comes to governing behavior at church picnics. But it has no place in determining how one should deal with the likes of Al-Qaeda and Kim Jong Un. Real world threats call for real world solutions.

Of course, that begs the question. What is more real for you: the specters that threaten your security or the covenant promises of your God? For Isaiah, God was the overwhelming reality. His graphic encounter with this God in the Temple of Jerusalem governed Isaiah’s outlook on all else. (Isaiah 6:1-5) There Isaiah recognized that neither Israel’s king nor the king of Assyria reign over history. The Lord of Hosts is King and he alone deserves ultimate allegiance. This God is the only one worthy of trust. So what would have happened had the king listened to Isaiah, refused both the anti-Assyrian alliance and his counselors’ urging to seek Assyrian aid? We can never know where the road not taken might have led. But we can confidently say that if Ahaz had put his trust in God’s covenant promises, his decision would have made room for yet another saving act of God. What shape that act might have taken we will never know.

As I have said in previous posts, it would be a mistake to characterize Isaiah as an idealistic dreamer whose visions were divorced from reality. Isaiah understood the geopolitical landscape better than Ahaz and his advisors. He could see that the dawning age of empires held no place for small, autonomous kingdoms like Judah and Israel. But that did not mean there was no place in that future for the people of God. Far from it! In the coming age of violent imperial warfare on a scale the world had not yet seen, a light for the nations would be needed more than ever. More than ever before, a faithful covenant people would be necessary to show the world that life does not have to be the way we have made it. There is an alternative way to be human, a social reality different from the hierarchical model of master and slave. The challenge for Israel: how to be this people of blessing in the age of empire.

Though he refused a sign under the pretext of humble piety, Ahaz receives a sign anyway. “The young woman* is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel.” Vs. 14. Though as we shall see, Matthew recognizes in the birth of Jesus the fulfillment of this prophecy, the immediate meaning for Ahaz is quite different. Biblical scholars continue to dispute the identity of this promised child. It has been argued that Immanuel must be 1) a child of Ahaz; 2) a child of Isaiah; 3) a general reference to all Judean children born in this time of crisis. For numerous reasons, the discussion of which would be far too tedious, none of these interpretations really fits. Nor is it clear what is meant by Isaiah’s declaration that the child shall be eating curds and honey by the time he knows how to distinguish between right and wrong. It is clear, though, that by this time the nations now pressuring Ahaz to join their anti-Assyrian coalition and threatening Judah with invasion will no longer exist. The implication is that Ahaz need only have waited and trusted in the Lord. God would have seen to the destruction of his enemies. There was no need to seek Assyrian aid. But now that Ahaz has ventured down this faithless path, he and his nation will bear the consequences-Assyrian oppression and tyranny. According to verse 17 (not in today’s reading) “The Lord will bring on you and on your people and on your ancestral house such days as have not come since the day that Ephraim departed from Judah—the king of Assyria.” Though couched in terms of realism and practical necessity, Ahaz’ decision to seek Assyrian protection was in fact short-sighted and foolhardy. So far from preserving the liberty of his nation, he exchanged one tyrant for another that would in time prove far worse.

Psalm 80:1–7, 17–19

Prior to the formation of the Davidic monarchy the tribes of Israel were bound together in a lose confederacy. It was customary for the people to assemble at a central sanctuary located at Shechem (See Joshua 24) and later at Shiloh. See I Samuel 1. Three such assemblies were required by covenant law: Festival of unleavened bread (later associated with Passover); Festival of first fruits (also called “weeks” or “Pentecost”) and the festival of ingathering (also called Tabernacles). See Exodus 23:14-17. Of the three, the most significant was the Feast of Tabernacles which evolved into a covenant renewal ceremony in which Israel recited God’s faithful acts of salvation and pledged her allegiance to this trustworthy God. Anderson, Bernhard W., Out of the Depths-The Psalms Speak for us Today, (c. 1983 Bernhard W. Anderson, pub. The Westminster Press) pp. 168-69. This tradition persisted after the division of the Davidic monarchy into the Southern Kingdom of Judah and the Northern Kingdom of Israel following the death of King Solomon. According to I Kings, Jeroboam, the first king of Israel in the north, instituted an ingathering festival “like the feast that was in Judah.” I Kings 12:32-33. The liturgies from these festivals naturally found their way into the psalms, the hymnals of the worshiping communities in both Israel and Judah. It is believed that verses 8-11 of Psalm 80 (not included in our reading) constitute the portion of the liturgy in which Israel recites the saving acts of God.

You brought a vine out of Egypt;
you drove out the nations and planted it.
9 You cleared the ground for it;
it took deep root and filled the land.
10 The mountains were covered with its shade,
the mighty cedars with its branches;
11 it sent out its branches to the sea,
and its shoots to the River.

After the fall of the northern kingdom of Israel to Assyria in 722 B.C.E., its psalms, scriptures and worship traditions were brought into the southern kingdom of Judah by refugees and incorporated into Judah’s worship. Psalm 80, which references the northern tribes of Ephraim and Manasseh, was one of the psalms so transmitted from north to south.

As it now stands, Psalm 80 is a prayer for national restoration. Unlike Judah in the south which benefited from the presence of Israel and the Phoenician states to the north acting as buffers against Syrian and Assyrian aggression, Israel was exposed to the brunt of such aggression. Israel did not enjoy the stability of a ruling family such as the line of David which provided a measure of political stability for Judah. Israel’s government was volatile, unstable and subject to frequent coups and revolutions. Such violent changes in leadership were sometimes viewed as acts of salvation and were even instigated by prophets such as Elijah and Elisha. Divine leadership for the nation was sought more in charismatic individuals raised up by God’s Spirit to meet national emergencies than from dynastic succession. Hence, the prayer that God would “let your hand be upon the one at your right hand, the one whom you made strong for yourself.” Vs. 17.

A prayer for God to raise up a savior for God’s people is an appropriate one for Advent. Yet if we would read this psalm faithfully as Jesus’ disciples, we must juxtapose this prayer for deliverance to the kind of savior Jesus is and the powers from which he saves us. Rightly understood, this psalm brings into sharp focus the scandal of the cross: the Messiah is Jesus the crucified one. If we are looking for a more powerful, more effective and more efficient savior to implement the new creation by force of arms or other coercive means, we are bound to be disappointed. Jesus implements the kingdom of heaven by the slow process of limitless compassion, forgiveness and peacemaking. That means his disciples must live also in this slow and often seemingly ineffective process. Such a life tests our patience and endurance. That is why we have the Book of Psalms.

Romans 1:1–7

Why would our lectionary include a reading that consists only of the formal opening for Paul’s letter to the Romans when we will not hear from this letter again until Lent? The only rationale I can see is that Paul’s reference to Jesus as descended from David according to the flesh” sort of fits in with the gospel lesson-if that gospel lesson had included the genealogy in Matthew 1:1-17 (it does not). Otherwise, I am tempted to conclude that this Sunday in Advent came rather late in the day for the lectionary makers who at 4:45 p.m. wanted only to call it a day and go home.

The reading constitutes a classic form of salutation used in opening letters customary to ancient Greek style. It begins with the name of the sender and that is important when you consider that these letters were originally produced as scrolls to be opened and read from top to bottom. If the letter were merely signed by the author at the end as we do today, you would not know the identity of the sender until you had finished reading the letter. The intended recipient is also placed in the salutation to ensure that the reader understands from the start the audience being addressed.

Paul expands on this classic form by using it to express the content of his faith and to give us just a hint about what is to come. First, Paul establishes his credentials as an apostle set apart by God to proclaim the good news of Jesus Christ. Vs. 1 Second, he articulates his understanding of that good news as the proclamation of Jesus as God’s Son through the testimony of the scriptures and the testimony of God expressed by God’s resurrection of Jesus from death. Vss. 2-4 Finally, Paul zeros in on his particular calling to bring about “obedience of faith among all the Gentiles.” Vs 5

Paul calls himself a “slave” of Jesus Christ (translated as “servant” in most translations). He understands himself therefore to be the property of Jesus. It is not lost on Paul that Jesus exercised his Lordship through servanthood. That is why Paul can also say that he is a slave of the church for Jesus’ sake. II Corinthians 4:5. Paul’s understanding of the church is radically anti-hierarchical. Though Paul is not at all shy about asserting his authority, he emphasizes that such apostolic authority has been given him for one reason only: to serve and build up the church. II Corinthians 13:10.

Paul refers to himself as having been “set apart” for the gospel of God. The Greek word he uses, “aphorisemenos,” has the same root meaning (translated from the Hebrew) as the title “Pharisee,” which means “one who is set apart.” That linguistic link could not have been lost on Paul, himself a Pharisee. The irony here is that through his calling Paul has been set apart, not to be isolated from the rest of the world, but to be propelled into it. He is set apart for the mission of bringing together the new people of God under Christ Jesus. This expanded salutation is a great wind-up for the pitch Paul is about to make: his lengthy discussion of God’s inclusion of the Gentiles into the covenant relationship with Israel through the faithful ministry, obedient death and glorious resurrection of Jesus.

Matthew 1:18–25

While I can understand why you would not want to include the lengthy genealogy preceding this week’s gospel lesson in the readings, I also believe that it is impossible to appreciate Matthew’s account of Jesus’ birth without it. That genealogy traces the ancestry of Joseph all the way from Abraham and through the lineage of King David. See Matthew 1:1-17. Then, after having established Joseph’s Abrahamic and Davidic credentials, Matthew goes on to explain that Jesus’ conception had nothing to do with Joseph. We are told that Joseph’s espoused wife was pregnant with a child not his own. So what was the point of the genealogy? If anyone’s genealogy matters in this story, it would be that of Mary, and we don’t know squat about her family tree.

I think Matthew is doing a couple of things here. For one thing, he wants to make it clear that God is doing a new thing. The Holy Spirit is again brooding over the waters and the birth of this child is a new creation. God does not need Abraham to produce his Messiah. The Baptist has told us already that God can make children of Abraham from stones. Matthew 3:9. Neither does God need the line of David to produce a new King. To be sure, the Messiah is first and foremost Israel’s Messiah and is given according to the covenant promises made exclusively with her. But the Messiah is a gift of grace to Israel no less than to the Gentile believers who will follow.

Mary’s virginity and the miraculous conception of Jesus have become foundational in so much thinking about the Incarnation. These topics are far too complex for this brief post (and this preacher) to tackle. Nevertheless, I believe it necessary to take a close look at what Matthew is saying (and not saying) here. It is obvious that Mary is pregnant and that Joseph is not the father. It is also clear that the child conceived in Mary is “from the Holy Spirit.” Matthew 1:20. That means quite simply that the Holy Spirit was active in bringing about the conception of Jesus. Matthew does not tell us how the Spirit operated in this case, whether by some human agent or through what we would call “miraculous” means. The Spirit, we know, can work either way. Furthermore, it is well known that the Hebrew text from our Isaiah reading, cited here as having been fulfilled by Jesus, states only that a young woman will conceive and bear a son. Isaiah 7:14. It says nothing about her sexual history or marital status. This does not rule out either Mary’s virginity at the time of Jesus’ conception or that the conception constituted a miraculous intervention without any other human involvement. But one cannot look to Matthew for support in arguing these assertions.

Finally, although the genealogy preceding our gospel lesson is not a part of the appointed text, I think a couple of comments are still in order. First, anyone examining them with care will soon discover that they contain significant discrepancies from the genealogical records of the Hebrew Scriptures. I don’t believe Matthew found that at all problematic as his use of them was not intended to provide a credible pedigree for Jesus. As noted earlier, Matthew did not believe such genealogical grounding to be necessary. For him, the genealogy is a literary device intended merely to show that the Messiah, though born into Israel, is not a product of Israel and his mission extends beyond Israel. For a very thorough discussion of where this genealogy came from and how it might have come into Matthew’s possession, see Brown, Raymond E., The Birth of the Messiah-A Commentary on the Infancy Narratives in Matthew and Luke, (c. 1977 by Raymond E. Brown, pub. Doubleday & Company) pp. 69-70.

What I find most interesting about the genealogy is the inclusion (in addition to Mary) of four women. Such inclusion of women in an ancient Jewish genealogy is itself unusual as lines of ancestry were traced exclusively through male descendents. Even more intriguing is the choice of women singled out. First is Tamar, the rejected wife of Judah’s several sons who posed as a prostitute in order to conceive Judah’s child. There was Rehab, the friendly prostitute of Jericho who assisted Joshua’s spies in scouting out the city in preparation for attack. According to Matthew’s genealogy, she became the wife Boaz, the husband of Ruth, a woman of Moab, whose own seductive measures won her marital status. Finally, Bathsheba is noted as the one through whom the ruling line of Davidic kings proceed. For the story of David and Bathsheba, see II Samuel 11-12:25 or refer to my post of Sunday, June 6, 2013. These women have the dubious distinction of being outside the lineage of Israel or of having borne children outside the legal bonds of wedlock. One cannot help but wonder whether their inclusion is intended to reflect on Mary’s situation and illuminate the work of the Spirit in her life as in theirs.

I must also confess that I have often wondered whether the Gospel of Matthew was not composed or edited by a woman’s hand. Perhaps the inclusion of these women, all of whom played active and often assertive roles in the divine drama, was the author’s way of reminding us that “we are in this too, you know.”