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Easter doesn’t come easy; a poem by Christina Rossetti; and the lessons for Sunday, April 1, 2018

See the source imageRESURRECTION OF OUR LORD

Acts 10:34-43
Psalm 118:1-2, 14-24
1 Corinthians 15:1-11
Mark 16:1-8

PRAYER OF THE DAY: O God, you gave your only Son to suffer death on the cross for our redemption, and by his glorious resurrection you delivered us from the power of death. Make us die every day to sin, that we may live with him forever in the joy of the resurrection, through your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

Mark the Evangelist’s Easter story is dark and terrifying. It begins and ends in a graveyard with three women racing from the scene of a violated tomb in stark terror. It appears to end that way too. The women, we are told, said nothing to anyone about what they had experienced. Of course, we know that cannot possibly have been the case. If it had, there would be no church and I would not be writing these lines. At some point, the women must have shared the good news about the empty tomb and Jesus’ resurrection. But we don’t learn anything about that from Mark. Mark would surely have been familiar with accounts of the resurrection and appearances of the resurrected Christ to his disciples found in the other gospels. These stories were floating around the church a good two decades at least before he wrote his gospel. Yet for reasons concerning which we can only speculate, Mark did not see fit to include them in his Easter story. Mark will not let us slide so easily from the shock of the empty tomb to the joy of reconciliation with the risen Christ. He leaves us instead with an unfinished story. If we want an ending, we will have to make it.

As unsettling as it is, Mark’s account of Easter Sunday resonates best with my instincts of how things likely went down. I expect the women were going to the tomb of Jesus for the same reason I might visit the tomb of a lost loved one. They wanted a measure of closure and to get on with their lives. Finding the tomb violated and the remains removed could only have added to the already traumatic loss they had experienced. I doubt that resurrection topped the list of possible explanations the women were entertaining for the empty tomb. Most likely, they concluded that the grave had been ransacked by some of Jesus’ many enemies. Seeing a man at the scene of the crime could only have made the experience more terrifying for the women. The fact that he happened to be wearing a white robe would not necessarily lead them to conclude that he was an angel, nor do I think they would have been inclined to trust much of anything he had to say to them. The women’s response-terror and silence-strike me as entirely understandable.

Those of us who have experienced the traumatic loss of a loved one know that the way back from total devastation to healing is a long, slow journey. There is a part of us that simply does not accept the terrible thing that has happened and believes we will wake up to discover that it was all a very bad dream. There is another part of us designed to protect us from entertaining such irrational hopes that will only be dashed in the end, thereby adding to our pain. I understand why the women who came to the tomb were terrified by the good news of Jesus’ resurrection. It was too good to be true and it would hurt them just too much if they dared to believe it.

Perhaps many of us have reached the point where we can no longer hear the good news of Easter. Perhaps we have been lied to, betrayed, taken advantage of so many times that we have lost the capacity for trust and hope. Maybe Mark’s audience was at that very point. Could this be a church that had seen so many set-backs, so many dashed hopes and so many failures it no longer dared to believe that Jesus was alive and leading it? Perhaps the troubling ending for Mark’s gospel was the shock therapy required to jolt an anesthetized church out of its spiritual coma and back into action. Yes, Jesus is risen. No, you can’t see him now. But if you go after him, if you return to Galilee, you might just catch a glimpse of him. You might finally overcome your fear and find your voice again. If you want Easter, you will have to work for it this year. Mark isn’t handing it to you on a silver platter!

Here is a poem by Christina Rossetti about Resurrection the hard way.

A Better Resurrection

I have no wit, no words, no tears;
My heart within me like a stone
Is numb’d too much for hopes or fears;
Look right, look left, I dwell alone;
I lift mine eyes, but dimm’d with grief
No everlasting hills I see;
My life is in the falling leaf:
O Jesus, quicken me.

My life is like a faded leaf,
My harvest dwindled to a husk:
Truly my life is void and brief
And tedious in the barren dusk;
My life is like a frozen thing,
No bud nor greenness can I see:
Yet rise it shall—the sap of Spring;
O Jesus, rise in me.

My life is like a broken bowl,
A broken bowl that cannot hold
One drop of water for my soul
Or cordial in the searching cold;
Cast in the fire the perish’d thing;
Melt and remould it, till it be
A royal cup for Him, my King:
O Jesus, drink of me.

Source: This poem is in the public domain. Christina Rossetti (1830-1894) was the daughter of an Italian poet and exile who emigrated to England in 1884. There he established himself as a scholar and teacher of Dante’s works at Kings College. He married an English woman in 1826 and they had four children together, one of which was Christina. Christina Rossetti’s childhood appears to have been happy, characterized by affectionate parental care and the creative inspiration from her older siblings. A devout Christian, her many poems, short stories and devotional works are rich in biblical imagery. You can find out more about Christina Rossetti and sample more of her poetry at the Poetry Foundation website.

Acts 10:34-43

This passage is part and parcel of a larger narrative beginning with Peter’s vision in which the Lord speaks to him and commands him to slaughter and eat a host of animals deemed ritually unclean in the Hebrew Scriptures. See Acts 10:1-16. The meaning of this strange vision is not revealed to Peter until he finds himself in the midst of a gentile family, that of the Roman Centurion, Cornelius. There he witnesses the Spirit of God filling them all with faith and inspiring them to confess Jesus as Lord. The story as a whole reflects the inner struggle of a deeply Jewish church with the positive response of gentiles to the good news about Jesus. Most Jewish disciples, like Peter, harbored serious reservations about receiving gentiles into the church. How could these outsiders possibly have an informed and sincere faith in the Jewish messiah when they knew next to nothing about the Jewish scriptures and practices? What would be the consequences of an influx of these new comers? What conditions, if any, should be placed upon admission of a gentile believer? Must he be circumcised? Should he be required to learn the Hebrew Scriptures? Peter was on solid scriptural grounds with his scruples about eating ritually unclean food and sharing meal fellowship with non-Jews. Jewish believers under the Greek tyrant, Antiochus Epiphanes chose to endure torture and to die horrible deaths rather than eat food deemed unclean as demanded of them. I Maccabees 1:62-64. How could Peter go into the home of a Roman oppressor of Israel and eat unclean food at his unclean table? Would this not dishonor the memory of the brave martyrs under Antiochus?

Peter’s declaration “that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him…is acceptable to him” came only after much difficult soul searching. Vss. 34-35. Peter had to give up long held interpretations of the scriptures and religious practices that had been part of his life since infancy. That did not come easily. I suspect it was not until Peter witnessed the Holy Spirit breathing life giving faith into the Roman Cornelius and his family that he became fully convinced that these folks should be baptized. He simply decided that any interpretation of the scriptures that stands between Jesus and a believing heart cannot possibly be right no matter how clear, convincing and well established it may be. As I have said many times before, this story of Peter and Cornelius, along with my having met many gay and lesbian people of faith over the years, is what ultimately convinced me that the church must be fully inclusive and welcoming to these folks. When all is said and done; when all the scriptural arguments have been made; there remains the fact that the Holy Spirit has moved a person to faith in Jesus. I find myself asking, as did Peter, “Can anyone forbid water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?” Acts 10:47

While the context of this passage is important, the Easter emphasis is on Peter’s witness to Jesus. Note well how Peter makes clear that his witness goes not merely to Jesus’ resurrection, but also to Jesus’ anointing with the Holy Spirit, his works of healing and casting out demons and his execution-the natural outcome of his faithful life. Without this narrative, the resurrection is empty of any real meaning for us. Unlike us, the ancient world had no doubt that God (or the gods) could resurrect a dead person. The gods might bestow such a favor on anyone to whom they took a shine. But in the realm of Greco-Roman literature, such persons tended to be heroes. The notion that Israel’s God (or any other deity) would raise up a crucified criminal was absurd. Under all objective standards, Jesus had been a colossal failure. He was misunderstood, betrayed and deserted by his closest disciples. He was rejected by his people and put to death in the most shameful way possible. But God’s judgment on Jesus’ life is entirely different than our own. God raised Jesus from death to say, “Yes, this is what my heart desires of human beings. This is my very self and is also everything I ever wanted humans to be. This is the measure by which I judge; this is the depth of my love for all so judged.”

Psalm 118:1-2, 14-24

“O give thanks unto the Lord, for he is good.” Vs. 1 Saint Augustine remarks, “I see not what can be more solemn than this brevity, since goodness is so peculiarly the quality of God…” On the Psalms, Augustine of Hippo, The Nicene Fathers, First Series, Vol. VIII, (c. 1979 WM. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.) p. 557. “Goodness,” however, is not an abstract principle. Verse 14, “The Lord is my strength and my song, and he has become my salvation,” is nearly identical to Exodus 15:2 which, in turn, is taken from the Song of Moses celebrating Israel’s salvation from Egypt’s armies at the Red Sea. Exodus 15:1-18. God’s goodness is both defined and illustrated through the salvation narrative of the Pentateuch. The Exodus stands at the heart of Israel’s worship and history. It is the paradigm for God’s saving acts. As we have seen throughout Second Isaiah (Isaiah 40-55), God’s victory for Israel at the Red Sea and God’s guidance and protection as Israel made her way through the wilderness to the promised land provided a rich supply of images for prophets seeking to illuminate saving acts of God occurring in Israel’s present context and to encourage the people in their darkest hours. Thus, whether this psalm commemorates the victory of one of Judah’s kings in battle or a procession bearing the Ark of the Covenant into the temple and regardless of when it reached its final form, it echoes God’s glorious victory over Egypt at the Red Sea and Israel’s liberation from bondage.

The “glad songs of victory in the tents of the righteous” in verse 16 might refer to encampments on the battlefield and therefore indicate the celebration of a military victory. Alternatively, the tents might refer to pilgrim encampments about Jerusalem for the Feast of Tabernacles. Rogerson, J.W. and McKay, J.W. Psalms 101-150, The Cambridge Bible Commentary (c. 1977 Cambridge University Press) p. 86. Again, given Israel’s practice of adapting her ancient liturgical traditions to new circumstances, these two interpretations are not necessarily mutually exclusive.

The psalmist switches from singular to plural, addressing God at one point, the assembled worshipers at another. Some passages seem to be addressed by God to the psalmist. This switching of voices has led many Old Testament scholars to v this view this hymn as a compilation of several different works. Rogerson and McKay, supra, p. 85. Professor Bernhard Anderson sees this as a “royal psalm,” a liturgy in which the king of Judah approaches the temple gates and seeks admission that he may give thanks. In so doing, he serves as a priestly figure representing the whole congregation of Israel. Anderson, Bernhard, W., Out of the Depths: The Psalms Speak for Us Today (c. 1983 by Bernhard W. Anderson, pub. by The Westminster Press) p. 113.

The words from this psalm most commonly cited in the New Testament are at vss. 22-23. Jesus quotes these words at the conclusion of his parable of the tenants in the vineyard. Matthew 21:42Mark 12:10Luke 20:17. They are also cited at Acts 4:11 and I Peter 2:7. The “chief corner stone” is probably the chief stone supporting an arch, without which the structure collapses. Rogerson and McKay, supra, p. 88. The meaning of this ancient proverb is open to interpretation. It could well refer back to the confessional acknowledgement required of Israel that she was descended from “a wandering Aramean” and delivered from slavery in Egypt by the God who alone is responsible for her existence as his people. Deuteronomy 26:5-11. This seemingly insignificant people is in fact God’s people of blessing to all the earth. Naturally, the proverb provided assurance and hope during the period of Babylonian Exile when it seemed that Israel had been “rejected” by the builders of history. Not surprisingly, then, the Apostles recognized a parallel between the enslaved and exiled people of God exalted by God’s saving acts and the crucified messiah exalted through his resurrection.

1 Corinthians 15:1-11

These verses form the introduction to Paul’s extended discussion of the resurrection throughout the whole of I Corinthians 15. I encourage you to read it in its entirety. Here Paul makes the very important point that Jesus’ resurrection is not simply his own, but the beginning of a general resurrection of the dead in which all believers participate even now. Jesus is the “first fruits” of the dead whose resurrection follows. The end comes when Christ “delivers up the kingdom to God the Father after destroying every rule and every authority and every power.” I Corinthians 15:24. This is precisely the claim that ultimately got disciples of Jesus into big trouble with the Roman Empire. As far as Caesar was concerned, there was only one kingdom and that was Rome. Suggesting that there might be another kingdom to which allegiance was owed could get you nailed to a cross. Asserting that all other kingdoms, including Rome, must finally be brought under the reign of such other kingdom was a direct shot across the imperial bow. These letters of Paul were considered subversive material in the 1stCentury and would be equally so in the 21st Century-if we really paid attention to what Paul is saying.

“Now I remind you, brethren, in what terms I preached to you the gospel…” vs. 1. These “terms” involve specifically the resurrection of the body. Paul’s non-Jewish audience would have been quite receptive to any number of concepts for life after death. What confounded them was the very Jewish notion of the resurrection of the body. Rosner, B.S., “With What Kind of Body Do they Come?” printed in The New Testament in Its First-Century Setting: Essays on Context and Background in Honor of B.W. Winter on his 65th Birthday, Edited by P.J. Williams (c. 2004 by Eerdmans); Wright, N.T., The Resurrection of the Son of God (c. Fortress Press 2003). The canonical Hebrew Scriptures generally speak of resurrection in terms of national restoration following exile rather than personal resurrection from death. Ezekiel’s vision of the valley filled with dry bones is an obvious example. Ezekiel 37:1-14. In the 26th chapter of Isaiah the prophet declares that “your dead shall live” and says explicitly that “their corpses shall rise.” Isaiah 26:19. Yet even so, these words in their context appear to function more as hyperbolic metaphors than literal promises of individual or corporate bodily resurrection from death. Only in the Book of Daniel do we find an explicit promise of resurrection from death:

“At that time Michael, the great prince, the protector of your people, shall arise. There shall be a time of anguish, such as has never occurred since nations first came into existence. But at that time your people shall be delivered, everyone who is found written in the book. Many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt. Those who are wise shall shine like the brightness of the sky, and those who lead many to righteousness, like the stars for ever and ever.” Daniel 12:1-3.

Notwithstanding the lack of any fully developed doctrine of resurrection from death, the Hebrew Scriptures nonetheless lay the foundation for such a hope in their witness to God as Creator, righteous Judge and merciful Savior See, e.g., Bauckham, R., The Fate of the Dead: Studies on the Jewish and Christian Apocalypses, Supplements to Novum Testamentum (c. 1998 by Leiden: Brill). Moreover, the resurrection of the dead is firmly attested by later Jewish apocalyptic literature. See I Enoch 51:1; I Enoch 62:14-16; 4 Ezra 7:32-33. In Paul’s unique take on the subject, the resurrection of the dead is preceded and made possible by the resurrection of Jesus. Jesus is the “first fruits” of the resurrected people of God. I Corinthians 15:20-23. Hays, H.B. First Corinthians (c. 1997 by John Knox Press) p. 263.

Verses 3-8 contain the earliest testimony to the resurrection of Jesus we have in the New Testament. It begins with the assertion that “Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures.” Vss. 3-4. Echoes of these verses are heard in the second articles of the Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds. But what does Paul mean by “scriptures?” Clearly, he can only mean the Hebrew Scriptures as these were the only Bible the church had during his lifetime. We mistake Paul’s meaning if we understand him to be saying that the Hebrew Scriptures “prove” that Jesus’ life, death and resurrection fulfill the covenant promises to Israel. It is actually quite the other way around. The life, death and resurrection of Jesus are attested by the witness of the apostles as we will soon see. But these events can be properly understood and appreciated only through the lens of the Hebrew Scriptures. It is to these scriptures we must turn in order to interpret Jesus. Without them, he is readily misunderstood as has been demonstrated by numerous heretical teachings that have attempted to sever the Hebrew Scriptures from the New Testament. According to Paul, “the message of the cross must be understood through the OT categories of sacrifice, atonement, suffering, vindication and so forth.” Ciampa, Roy, E. and Rosner, Brian S., I Corinthians, pub. in Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament, edit. Beal, G.K. and Carson, D.A. (c. 2007 by G.K. Beal and D.A. Carson, pub. by Baker Academic) p. 744.

Paul’s recitation of the resurrection appearances to the apostles is interesting in that it implies Cephas (Peter) was the first to meet the resurrected Christ, followed by the Twelve, the five hundred and then James (the brother of the Lord?). He makes no mention of the appearance of Jesus to the women attested in Matthew, Mark and Luke or the appearance to Mary Magdalene in John’s gospel. Since Paul is arguing the resurrection of Jesus to some in Corinth who appear to deny it, his purpose in citing these witnesses seems to be that of bolstering his position. As women were not generally deemed to be competent witnesses in Jewish culture and in some other near eastern societies, he might have intentionally avoided mentioning them in this letter to avoid weakening his case. In any event, the point here is to illustrate that Jesus both died and was raised from death and that there remain eye witnesses to this saving work of God.

Paul includes himself among the apostolic witnesses to the resurrected Christ. Vs. 8. Indeed, he appears to ground his apostleship in part on his having seen Jesus. I Corinthians 9:1. Most likely, this is a reference to his conversion experience on the Road to Damascus. This story is related by Paul himself in Galatians 1:13-17 and throughout the Book of Acts. Acts 9:1-9Acts 22:6-16Acts 26:12-18. Paul’s encounter with the risen Christ is removed not only in time but in quality from that of the other apostles. Mary Magdalene, the other women at the tomb and the twelve all encountered the same One they had known and followed throughout his ministry (though they were not always quick to recognize him). There is no indication that Paul ever knew Jesus during his mortal lifetime and thus could only have known him through his self-identification. Paul seems aware of this difference, referring to his encounter with Jesus as an “untimely birth.” Vs. 8. Nonetheless, untimely though it may have been and unworthy as he may have been, Paul had an encounter during which he “saw” the resurrected Christ. His witness further substantiates the claim that God has indeed begun to raise the dead and the proof in the pudding is Jesus.

A word or two further should be said about resurrection from death. This is not a distant hope to be fulfilled only in the indefinite future. Death is destroyed even now-if we understand that it is not the last word. I must say that one of the greatest disappointments I have experienced throughout my life in the church is our inordinate fear death. I cannot honestly say that I have found in the church any less denial of death, inability to discuss death or acceptance of death than in the public at large. Now I am not suggesting that death should be treated lightly or that anxiety about dying is unnatural or suggests a lack of faith. But I do believe that disciples of Jesus ought to know how to die. Like all other disciplines, the art of dying well is learned and practiced in a community of faith. The church should be a place where a person can discuss the deterioration of health, life threatening sickness and the effects of chronic pain in comfort and without awkwardness. We should all be assured that no one of us has to die alone. People in hospice should be comforted by visitors who read psalms to them, pray over them or simply sit at their bedside. A disciple’s funeral should be in the sanctuary where s/he worshipped. The casket should stand in the presence of the baptismal font and be surrounded by the symbols of faith. The Lord’s Supper should be celebrated as a testament both to our resurrection hope and the communion of saints that even now transcends the grave. The church should then accompany the casket to the cemetery where the body is placed in the earth like a seed awaiting the life giving Spring of the resurrection. None of this makes death pleasant. But, as Paul tells us, it can take the sting out of it. I Corinthians 15:54-58.

Mark 16:1-8

As I have mentioned before, Mark’s resurrection is the Transfiguration story at the center of his gospel. At least that is how I see it. See my post of February 15, 2015. There Jesus is revealed as God’s beloved Son transcending both the law and the prophets. At the end of the book we have only an empty tomb, a cryptic messenger and some women running away in terror. It is hardly surprising that subsequent editors sought to supplement the gospel with some other resurrection traditions. See Mark 16:9-20. I suspect they were uncomfortable with the loose ends left hanging at verse 8. But Mark excels at loose ends, unfinished stories and unanswered questions. He seems to delight in denying us “closure.”

Though scholarship is virtually unanimous in viewing the resurrection accounts following verse 8 as non Marcan accretions, not all New Testament scholars are convinced that verse 8 is or was intended to be the end of Mark’s gospel. Vincent Taylor, for example, argues that “it is incredible that Mark intended such a conclusion.” Taylor, Vincent, The Gospel According to St. Mark, (Second Ed.) Thornapple Commentaries (c. 1966 by Vincent Taylor, pub. by Baker Book House Co.) p. 609. The argument is based largely on the fact that the concluding sentence, “the [women] said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid,” ends with the Greek word “gar,” meaning “for.” Such a construction is admittedly clumsy and hardly an appropriate conclusion for any literary work. Cranfield likewise rejects the conclusion that Mark intended to end his gospel at verse 8. “Since the fact of the Resurrection appearances was clearly an element of the church’s primitive preaching, it is highly improbable that Mark intended to conclude his gospel without at least one account of a Resurrection appearance.” Cranfield, C.E.B., The Gospel According to St. Mark, The Cambridge Greek Testament Commentary (c. 1959 by Cambridge University Press). The supposition is that the original ending was either lost, deliberately suppressed or never completed.

I don’t find any of these objections to ending Mark’s gospel at vs. 8 persuasive. As I noted earlier, Mark delights in leaving us with more questions than answers. Awkward grammar in the final verse fits nicely into the messy, jerky and twisted manner in which the gospel is told from beginning to end. As Morna Hooker points out, there is a fine irony in the closing scene. Whereas up until now Jesus has been urging his followers and the benefactors of his miracles to remain silent about what they have experienced, here the young man at the tomb orders the women to tell the disciples and Peter that Jesus has risen and will meet them in Galilee. But the women now manage to do exactly what no one else had been able to do throughout the entire narrative, namely, keep quite. The women run from the tomb in terror and say nothing to anyone. 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. 587. In sum, Mark has given us a splendid (if deeply troubling) literary ending to his work. The church’s attempts to improve upon it only blunt its impact.

In the Gospel of Luke, the women disciples are identified in the midst of the text at Luke 8:1-3 where we learn that they played a pivotal role in financing the ministry of Jesus. In Mark the women make their appearance only after the crucifixion of Jesus where we learn that they were watching this event and Jesus’ subsequent burial from a distance. Mark 15:40-41. They were, it seems, the only witnesses to Jesus’ crucifixion as the other disciples had fled. Their presence at the crucifixion, albeit “at a distance,” explains how they knew where to find Jesus’ body on Easter Sunday. As noted above, when confronted by the (angelic?) messenger, told that Jesus has been raised and commanded to bring this news to the disciples, they flee and say nothing to anyone.

Here, too, Matthew and Luke tell a different story. According to Luke, the women carry out their commission and bring the good news of Jesus’ resurrection to the rest of the disciples. Their tidings, however, are discounted as an “idle tale.” Luke 24:1-12. In Matthew, as in Mark, the women are directed to tell the rest of the disciples that Jesus has risen and to instruct them to go to meet him in Galilee. But in Matthew’s telling, the women carry out their commission and the disciples evidently believe them and meet Jesus in Galilee. Matthew 28:1-10; 16-20.

I do not know how to reconcile these seeming inconsistencies. Nor am I fully convinced that I understand why Mark chose not to include any resurrection appearances of Jesus although it is clear from Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians that such accounts were circulating within the church decades before Mark’s gospel was composed. But it seems to me that Mark has deliberately written an open ended Gospel, challenging us to tie up the loose ends and fill in the blanks. How and when will we find the courage to speak the good news of Jesus’ resurrection? When will we overcome our fear and break the silence? How and when will the news of Jesus’ resurrection draw his terrified disciples (then and now) out of hiding to follow him once again? Perhaps we should read the gospels of Matthew and Luke, who rely heavily on Mark’s gospel, as faithful responses to Mark’s challenge.

Taking the Bible back from the masses; a poem by Jacqueline Woodson; and the lessons for Sunday, March 25, 2018

See the source imageSUNDAY OF THE PASSION / PALM SUNDAY

Mark 11:1-11
Isaiah 50:4-9a
Psalm 31:9-16
Philippians 2:5-11
Mark 14:1—15:47

PRAYER OF THE DAYEverlasting God, in your endless love for the human race you sent our Lord Jesus Christ to take on our nature and to suffer death on the cross. In your mercy enable us to share in his obedience to your will and in the glorious victory of his resurrection, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

Palm Sunday marks the beginning of Holy Week, the journey from Jesus’ triumphant entry into Jerusalem, through his betrayal, suffering and death and into the sunrise of the Resurrection. Holy Week, like the church year generally, was designed for a people familiar with and formed by the larger biblical narrative. The parallels between Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem, the messianic prophecies of Zechariah and the triumphal entry of David with the ark of the covenant into Jerusalem should not be lost on such a people. Nor should the strong overtones of the Exodus and Passover at the Last Supper escape their notice. The refrains of the suffering servant songs and the tortured cries of the lamenting psalmists should frame the context for the cross, and the Resurrection should be grounded in the liberation of Israel at the Red Sea and informed by all of the ancient promises made to Israel from Genesis to Malachi. The problem, however, is that practicing Christians are increasingly deaf to these interrelated themes. They are like beginning piano students who, at best, can manage to pick out only the melody line of a complex musical score.

I think this problem goes far beyond mere biblical illiteracy. It is rooted in our protestant insistence that the Bible is a book for general consumption and that any fair-minded person can pick it up, read it and readily arrive at its meaning and significance. Witness the tireless work of the Gideons in assuring that every motel, hotel and resort suite throughout the United States is stocked with a King James Bible. It is as though evangelism were only a matter of getting the book into the hands of the unbeliever. In truth, however, the Bible is a complex, layered and nuanced collection of writings speaking in many voices. It is as much the testimony of Israel and the church as it is the testament of God. Its open-ended narrative is rich in frolics and detours. There are numerous rabbit holes down which one might venture, texts that confuse, terrify and serve as springboards for some of the most abhorrent forms of religious expression ever to appear on the world stage. I sometimes wonder whether placing the Bible into the hands of the common people was not one of Martin Luther’s biggest blunders.

This is not to say that the Bible belongs solely to the educated elite. I am convinced that many scholars armed with the tools of historical criticism are as inept as unlearned literalists when it comes to interpreting the Bible. As Professor Stanley Hauerwas has observed, “literalist fundamentalism and the critical approaches to the Bible are but two sides of the same coin, insofar as each assumes that the text should be accessible to anyone without mediation by the church.” Hauerwas, Stanley, Unleashing the Scriptures: Freeing the Bible from Captivity to America, (c. 1993 by Abingdon Press) p. 17. That is to say, the Bible cannot rightly be interpreted apart from the communities that gave birth to it and have been formed by it. Without Israel and the church, the Bible would have no more significance than the Egyptian Book of the Dead. It would be a fascinating literary relic, of interest perhaps to students of ancient religion, archaeology and art-but of no relevance to most 21st Century people. The Bible continues to speak to the world today only because it speaks directly to these two communities, Israel and the church, telling them who they are, why they are and how they are to live.

Unlike our sisters and brothers in the Roman Catholic and Orthodox traditions, we protestants have nothing like a “teaching magisterium” to guide us in our interpretation of the Scriptures. Indeed, given our fiercely individualistic impulses, the very thought of such an institution makes us see red. We bristle at the notion that anyone should have the right to “tell us what to think.” Yet I believe the fragmented protestant experience has taught us that reliance upon the faculties of reason possessed by the common person (or the highly educated one for that matter) to arrive at the objectively correct reading of a biblical text is misplaced. We need the guidance of the Holy Spirit which comes when we read the Bible together as a community of disciples following Jesus. Even when one reads the Bible alone, s/he does not read it in isolation, but in the company of St. Augustine, St. Aquinas, Martin Luther, Soren Kierkegaard, Karl Barth, Paul Tillich, Reinhold Niebuhr, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Martin Luther King, Jr., contemporary theologians, pastors, teachers, friends and mentors. Interpreting the Bible is a job far too important to be left in the hands of any one individual. It requires the shared wisdom of a community of disciples in communion with the whole church and grounded in that church’s rich and diverse historical traditions.

Holy Week should be a shared exercise in Biblical interpretation integrated with the disciplines of Lent and careful listening to the passion and resurrection narrative. Just as we cannot hope to follow Jesus apart from the communion of saints, so too, we cannot expect to understand the Scriptures apart from participation in that holy communion wherein the mind of Christ is formed.

Here is a poem by Jacqueline Woodson with a fleeting picture of what formation looks like within a community of faith.

Church

On Sundays, the preacher gives everyone a chance
to repent their sins. Miss Edna makes me go

to church. She wears a bright hat
I wear my suit. Babies dress in lace.

Girls my age, some pretty, some not so
pretty. Old ladies and men nodding.

Miss Edna every now and then throwing her hand
in the air. Saying Yes, Lord and Preach!

I sneak a pen from my back pocket,
bend down low like I dropped something.

The chorus marches up behind the preacher
clapping and humming and getting ready to sing.

I write the word HOPE on my hand.

Source: Jacqueline Woodson, “Church” from Locomotion, (c. 2003 by Jacqueline Woodson, pub. by Puffin Books). Jacqueline Woodson was born in Columbus, Ohio, but grew up in Greenville, South Carolina and Brooklyn, New York. She is the author of over thirty books for children and young adults. Her honors include the Jane Addams Children’s Book Award, the Coretta Scott King Award, the Los Angeles Times Book Prize and the Newbery Honor. She received the Margaret A. Edwards Award for lifetime achievement, the St. Katharine Drexel Award and the Anne V. Zarrow Award for Young Readers’ Literature. You can find out more about Jacqueline Woodson and sample more of her poetry at the Poetry Foundation website.

Mark 11:1-11

Mark’s account of Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem is a good deal more subdued than the accounts of Matthew, Luke and John. It is not clear whether those accompanying Jesus with palms and praise included anyone other than his disciples. Moreover, when Jesus arrives at Jerusalem, he is not swept into the temple on a tsunami of praise to cleanse it. Instead, he merely inspects it and retires to Bethany with his disciples. The parade ends with a whimper instead of a bang.

Unlike the other gospels, Mark does not cite Zechariah 9:9 in his telling of the story. Nevertheless, he is most probably influenced by the whole of Chapter 9 from the Book of the Prophet Zechariah. Taylor, Vincent, The Gospel According to St. Mark, Second Ed., Thornapple Commentaries (c. 1966 by Vincent Taylor, pub. by Baker Book House Co.) p. 353-354; Cranfield, C.E.B., The Gospel According to St. Mark, The Cambridge Greek Testament Commentary (c. 1959 Cambridge University Press) p. 352. For a more dubious view, see Hooker, Morna D., The Gospel According to St. Mark, Black’s New Testament Commentary (c. 1991 by Morna D. Hooker, pub. by Henderson Publishers, Inc.) p. 257. The oracle of Zechariah 9:1-8 foretells the destruction of Israel’s enemies at the dawn of the messianic age. Zechariah 9:9 announces that Israel’s messiah is coming, not as a military conqueror on a war horse, but “humble and riding on an ass.” The chariot and the warhorse shall be “cut off” and the new king will “command peace to the nations,” not armed attacks. There may also be echoes in this account of the entry of Simon Maccabeus into Jerusalem “with praise and palm branches…and with hymns and songs.” I Maccabees 13:51. Taylor, supra at 546. This triumphal entry also was associated with a cleansing of the temple. Maccabees 13:50. I find the association doubtful, however.

The term “Hosanna” is a Greek transliteration of the Hebrew imperative, “Save now” found in Psalm 118:25. Vs. 9. This is a cry for salvation similar to other such cries found throughout the Psalms of lament, though used here in a Psalm of thanksgiving. It is also used in other parts of the Hebrew Scriptures to address kings with petitions for relief. II Samuel 14:4II Kings 6:26Psalm 118:25 is perhaps antiphonally juxtaposed to Psalm 118:26 cited by Mark immediately thereafter: “Blessed is he who enters in the name of the Lord.” Vs.10. This was possibly a blessing pronounced by the priest to pilgrims coming to worship at the temple on high holy days and would certainly fit the occasion of Passover in Jerusalem. Mark, of course, expands this exclamation to cover Jesus’ coming to Jerusalem as messiah/king. The words “blessed is the kingdom of our father David that is coming!” stop short of “full throated Messianic homage.” Vs. 10. Taylor, supra at 452. Clearly, however, Mark himself fully intended for the reader to draw this conclusion. Cranfield, supra at 352.

The meaning both of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem and of Zechariah’s prophecy are sharpened by the occurrence of another parade that would have taken place a week earlier when through a gate at the opposite end of the city Pontius Pilate entered Jerusalem at the head of a column of imperial cavalry and soldiers to keep the peace during the potentially turbulent time of Passover. See Borg, Marcus and Crossan, John Dominic, The Last Week: A Day-by-Day Account of Jesus Final Week in Jerusalem (c. 2006 Harper) pp. 2-5. Pilate represented another kind of peace: the Pax Romana. To an extent never before seen in history, the Roman Empire was able to enforce its reign over the Mediterranean basin establishing law and order. While Rome’s governance kept a lid on local hostilities and allowed the expansion of trade and commerce, these benefits came at a terrible human cost. The cross was the ultimate instrument of terror by which Rome kept the peace.

I cannot help repeating what I have said many times before, namely, that while pacifism has been at the fringes of Christian theology since the beginning of the 4th Century, it is at the heart of the New Testament witness to Jesus. Palm Sunday is as strong a repudiation of the Armed Forces parade as any you will ever find. Pilate at one end of the city with his armed columns, their sabers rattling and their boots tramping over the stones with military precision inspiring terror. At the other end, the humble king riding unarmed and peacefully into town on his donkey greeted with joy and hope. The “Just War Tradition,” “The Two Kingdom Doctrine” and “Christian Realism” amount to little more than Christendom’s lame effort to march in both parades at once.

Isaiah 50:4-9a

This reading is taken from the second section of the Book of Isaiah (Isaiah 40-55) authored in the main by an anonymous prophet speaking a message of salvation to the Jewish exiles living in Babylon during the 6thCentury B.C.E. His was the task of alerting his fellow exiles to the new opportunity created for them to return home to Palestine opened up by Persia’s conquest of Babylon. On the one hand, the prophet makes a joyous declaration of salvation for Israel and announces the potential for a new start. On the other hand, the prophet makes clear that God is doing with Israel something entirely new. This will not be a return to “the good old days” when Israel was a powerful and independent people under the descendants of David. That, according to the prophet, “is too light a thing” for the people of God. Israel and the servant prophet are to be given “as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.” Isaiah 49:6. For more specifics on the Book of Isaiah generally, See Summary Article by Fred Gaiser, Professor of Old Testament, Luther Seminary, St. Paul, MN.

Sunday’s reading is a passage from the third of Isaiah’s four “servant songs.” The other three are found at Isaiah 42:1–9Isaiah 49:1-6 and Isaiah 52:13-53:12. According to biblical commentator Claus Westermann, these songs represent a special strand within section two of Isaiah. Westermann, Claus, Isaiah 40-66, The Old Testament Library (c. SCM Press, Ltd. 1969) p.  92. Scholars hold differing views on the identity of the “servant” in these songs. Some view the servant as an individual, perhaps the prophet him/herself. Others maintain that the servant is the people of Israel whose covenant life in the restored Jerusalem will enlighten the nations. Christians from very early on have seen reflected in these verses the ministry of Jesus. It seems to me that all of these interpretations are valid in some measure. Clearly, the prophet himself/herself understood that s/he was announcing an act of God that would be revelatory for all peoples. So too Israel always had an awareness that her existence was in part a demonstration of God’s glory to the world though, like the church, she tended to forget that aspect of her calling at times. The church likewise confessed from the outset that Jesus’ lordship was defined in terms of the hopes and expectations set forth in the Hebrew Scriptures. Just as the faithful service of the prophet was a model for Israel’s servant role among the nations, so the church is a continuation of Jesus’ faithful ministry. In sum, these differing interpretations enrich rather than contradict one another.

Though tidings of a new beginning might at first blush sound like good news, it is likely that many of the exiles did not hear it that way. Life in cosmopolitan Babylon may not have seemed much like captivity to the second generation of Jews who had purchased land, begun businesses or secured important posts in the Babylonian government. Giving up the security of a settled existence for a dangerous trip back to a ruined land must have seemed like madness to them. No doubt they resented and perhaps feared this prophet whose preaching enticed members of the community away from their homes and families to embark on such a misguided adventure. Not surprisingly, the prophet met with resistance that included violence (smiting, spitting and pulling out the beard). Vs. 6. The prophet is undismayed by this abuse, confident that his commission is from the God of Israel. Vss. 7-9.

Westermann notes that “[t]he special characteristic of the prophetic office is the very fact that the prophet wakens his ear ‘morning by morning,’ and must continually allow it to be opened by God, in order to have ‘an answer to give to the weary.’” Ibid. p. 229. Perhaps this is what John the evangelist had in mind when he quotes Jesus as saying: “My teaching is not mine, but his who sent me.” John 7:16. The incarnation, then, fuses the prophet and the Word as one. Not surprisingly, then, the rejection of that Word by a sinful world, as occurred most definitively in the passion narrative, takes the form of lethal violence.

Westermann believes these passages from Isaiah to be “truly revolutionary in their importance” because they express the servant’s acceptance of his/her persecution as an affliction intended by God as the fulfillment of his/her prophetic mission. Ibid. p. 231. Though the psalmists and the prophets, most notably Jeremiah, struggle with seemingly unmerited persecution which they hope to see redressed through retribution of some kind, the servant seeks not retribution but vindication. Israel’s final salvation, not her just punishment, will demonstrate that the servant’s suffering is not evidence of God’s rejection, but of the prophet’s faithfulness.

I agree with Westermann’s reading of this text, though I am not convinced that it is quite as revolutionary as he supposes. While the prophets could be caustic in their prayers for retribution against their enemies and unsparing in their proclamations of judgment, they never lost sight of their solidarity with Israel. Even the socially ostracized Jeremiah could weep bitterly over the fate of his people-however justly deserved it might be. Jeremiah 9:1. Isaiah recognizes that he is “a man of unclean lips, and dwells in the midst of a people of unclean lips.” Isaiah 6:5. As withering as Amos’ judgments against Israel were, he prayed fervently that the people might be spared the worst of God’s wrath. Amos 7:1-6. In sum, the prophets always understood God’s judgment as an instrument of healing and salvation. Similarly, they must have understood at some level that their persecutions were part and parcel of their callings.

These observations tie naturally into the passion narrative that will occupy center stage this coming Sunday. The persecuted and rejected prophetic word, now become flesh, is vindicated and triumphs not through an act of counter-violence, but through God’s patient determination to keep on speaking the gracious invitation to forgiveness, reconciliation and peace in the face of that rejection. God’s power is God’s patience.

Psalm 31:9-16

This is a psalm of lament, one of the most common types found in the Psalter. As noted in last week’s post, the essential elements of its type are:

  1. Initial Appeal to Yahweh, vss. 1-2.
  2. Portrayal of inward distress, vss. 3-4
  3. Expression of confidence, vss. 5-6
  4. Witness of praise to the community, vss. 7-8.

See Anderson, Bernard W., Out of the Depths, The Psalms Speak for us Today, (c. 1983 by Bernard W. Anderson, pub. by The Westminster Press) p. 97. If some elements are missing in this week’s reading, it is because the lectionary has truncated the psalm, probably in the interest of fitting the readings onto the commercially prescribed bulletin inserts. Moreover, the psalms are prayers formed in the furnace of human experience. As such, they do not always fit neatly into the scholarly categories of literary forms floating about like Platonic prototypes in the scholastic ether. In any event, it is puzzling to me that the lectionary did not begin the reading early enough at least to incorporate verse 5, “Into thy hand I commit my spirit.” Psalm 31:5. That would have been a good tie in to the passion narrative, albeit John’s rather than Mark’s.

Verses 9-13 are particularly striking. The psalmist complains that he is surrounded by enemies, people who whisper behind his back and seek his destruction. We might wonder about the mental health of someone who makes such complaints. Folks who imagine that the world is conspiring against them generally overrate their importance and exaggerate the hostility of those around them. I was recently asked by a traveling companion who noticed my Ezee Pass, “Doesn’t it bother you that the government knows where you are going and when?” I don’t remember what my precise response was, but the truth is I would be flattered to learn that the government or anyone else deemed my little life important enough to merit observation.

That being said, we all tend to be a little paranoid when we are feeling sick, weak and vulnerable. The aged and infirm naturally fear well-meaning relatives and friends who take it upon themselves to make important decisions for them without their input. When rumors of layoffs begin to make their way through the workplace it is natural to look for indications in the way people talk to you and act around you suggesting that you might be on the “to go” list. When something deeply hurtful, deeply personal and deeply embarrassing occurs in your life, it is not unusual to begin wondering whether the person you are speaking with knows all about it and what he or she might be thinking. Whether real or imagined, human malice is an experienced reality and one that the psalmist rightly lays before the Lord.

In addition to the affronts of his enemies, the psalmist is clearly disappointed in the friends s/he feels have deserted him or her. Vs. 12. Again, this desertion may or may not actually be real or malicious. When we are hurting, human companionship alone seldom fulfills all of our needs. We are all aware that there are some people who feel neglected and slighted no matter how often you visit or call. As important as friendship is and as valuable as it can be in difficult times, it is no substitute for faith in God’s promises. Perhaps it is because we lean too heavily on our human relationships, looking to them for the healing only God can offer, that they fail us. Marriages, friendships and family simply collapse under the weight of our unrealistic expectations. Again, the psalmist quite properly turns his or her hope toward God, the one companion whose promises never fail. When that adjustment is made, a return to healthy human companionship is again possible.

Philippians 2:5-11

There is near scholarly consensus that Paul is citing in this passage an ancient Christian hymn of Palestinian origins possibly alluding to the “servant” figure form Second Isaiah discussed under the heading of our first lesson. It fits perfectly Paul’s articulation of his theology of the cross in I Corinthians 1:18-4:20 and his discussion of the church as the Body of Christ in I Corinthians 12:1-14:40. As the “Body of Christ,” the church must have the “mind of Christ.” Vs. 5. So far from aspiring to godhood (the sin of Adam and Eve), Jesus willingly took the form of a servant, living joyfully, trustingly and obediently within the limits of his humanity. Vss. 6-9. The Greek word for “servant” (doulos) is literally translated “slave.” It is the word Jesus used when he told his disciples that the greatest among them must be the servant/slave of all. Mark 10:44.

In a sinful world, a life so lived draws hostility and hatred. Jesus’ death on the cross was therefore the expected outcome of his obedient life. It is in precisely this sense that Jesus’ death was necessary. To put it in the most cynical way, “that’s what happens to nice guys.” But such cynicism is silenced by God’s resurrection of Jesus from death. Vs. 9. The upside down kingdom for which Jesus lived and died is real. The powers that put him to death are transitory and doomed to pass away. It is to Jesus, not to Caesar or any other nation or flag that all the universe will one day kneel. Vss 10-11. Disciples are called to live in the certain knowledge of that reality now.

Mark 14:1—15:47

I don’t preach on the Passion. The Passion text preaches itself. Whatever I might add can only detract. Yet, if you are foolhardy enough to try and improve on the gospel narrative, there are several points of interest. First, the story begins with Jesus in the home of Simon the leper. Mark 14:3. This individual was likely well known to Mark’s audience as nothing more is said to identify him. Nineham, D.E., Saint Mark, The Pelican New Testament Commentaries (c. 1963 by D.E. Nineham, pub. by Penguin Books) p. 371. It is worth noting that, up to the very end, Jesus maintains table fellowship with those deemed unclean.

Second, the story of the woman who anoints Jesus with the alabaster flask of ointment is worth telling. Mark 14:3-9. It is ironic that this story has been saved, according to Jesus, to preserve the woman’s memory though we do not even know her name! We might use this opportunity to memorialize all the unknown, nameless persons whose acts of extravagant generosity go unrecognized. It strikes me that this would be a good opportunity for recognizing social workers, school teachers and other members of the helping professions seldom mentioned without a condescending sneer on the lips of politicians from a certain political party of the American two-party system which is not Democratic and will otherwise remain appropriately anonymous. These folks work long hours, are disgracefully underpaid and typically handle oversize classes and/or caseloads with decreased funding. On top of all that, they must endure the constant refrain that their sacrifices are pointless and a waste of taxpayer money.

Third, I have always found interesting that, at the close of chapter 13, Jesus admonishes his disciples three times to “watch.” Mark 13:32-37. In the Garden of Gethsemane they must be jarred out of sleep exactly three times and reminded to watch. Mark 14:32-42. Recall that the disciples are preoccupied with the timing of the temple’s destruction and the signs accompanying the close of the age. Evidently, they do not know what to watch for. The darkening of the sun (Mark 15:33), the acclimation of Jesus as “King” (Mark 15:26) and the confession of Jesus as God’s son by the gentiles (Mark 15:39) all occur within the Passion narrative. Jesus came in his glory, but the disciples missed it because they failed to keep watch! Makes you wonder what signs should we look for? How does Jesus rule? What is glory anyway? Nothing of what we expect.

Then, of course, there is my favorite: the streaker in the garden. Mark 14:51-52. This little aside about the young man wearing a linen cloth has always fascinated me. Where did he come from? Why was he naked except for the linen? Why, out of all the disciples, did the temple authorities grab him? Whatever happened to him? Why does Mark (and only Mark) bother to relate such a seemingly inconsequential detail of such an important story? I can’t answer any of these questions, much less figure out how to get a sermon out of them.

In summary, I recommend not preaching the Passion. But if you must, these are just a few things you might talk about.

Toxic nostalgia; a poem by Miller Williams; and the lessons for Sunday, March 11, 2018

FOURTH SUNDAY IN LENT

Numbers 21:4-9
Psalm 107:1-3, 17-22
Ephesians 2:1-10
John 3:14-21

PRAYER OF THE DAY: O God, rich in mercy, by the humiliation of your Son you lifted up this fallen world and rescued us from the hopelessness of death. Lead us into your light, that all our deeds may reflect your love, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

“Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness?” Numbers 21:5.

Lately, Facebook seems to have been inundated with nostalgia posts. These are video feeds that walk you down memory lane into friendly neighborhoods of yore where nobody locked their doors, kids played stick ball, hopscotch, hide and seek all day on the sidewalks, in the streets and in vacant lots without supervision and nothing bad ever happened to them. These were the days when you could get a popsicle for a dime that broke in the center so you could share it with a friend. Teachers exercised discipline without fear of being sued and kids were all better behaved for it. Everyone respected the flag, loved their country and did their jobs without complaining. It was a happier, simpler time. These feeds usually end with an invitation to share if you concur with such sentiments. I never do.

I will admit that there is a part of my psyche that enjoys these posts. I can be as nostalgic as the next person for the things I miss-the hiss and crackle of vacuum tubes you heard when turning on the old radio. The television shows we watched in black and white with the living room curtains drawn because that was the only way we could see even an outline of what was on the screen. I miss the sound of the Puget Sound Naval Shipyard whistle that signaled the end of my Dad’s work shift, letting me know that he would soon be walking up the street from the bus stop. So naturally, I get warm and fuzzy feelings from being reminded of these relics of my past.

But there is a dark side of nostalgia as well. “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness?” the people of Israel demand of Moses indignantly. Their frustration is understandable. They have been experiencing the hardships of the wilderness for years. They have seen war, hunger and thirst. So hard is their lot that they yearn for Egypt, the land of bondage from which they had so recently been liberated. In their minds, Egypt was a land of plenty. “We remember the fish we ate in Egypt for nothing, the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions and the garlic.” Numbers 11:5. They seem to have forgotten, however, the Pharaoh’s cruel edict requiring them to expose their male children and leave them to die. They seem to have forgotten the cruel bondage from which they cried out for four hundred years to be delivered. It is all reminiscent of the song made famous in my youth by Barbara Streisand in the movie, The Way We Were: “Memories, may be beautiful and yet, what’s too painful to remember, we simply choose to forget.” Selective memory is a pernicious mental process that distorts the past, colors our perceptions of the present and darkens our outlook on the future. Nostalgia can tempt us to reject the day which the Lord has made in favor of what we deem to have been better days in the past. It can turn us away from the future into which God is calling us.

The nostalgia I see again and again on Facebook posts seems innocent enough on the surface, but it plays all too easily into the sinister myth of a golden age in America, an age to which we must return if we would prosper. It goes something like this: Once upon a time America was great. Once upon a time a man was the king of his castle, the master of his home. It was a time when doctors, lawyers, senators and state representatives were men-white men to be specific. There was a time when everyone knew what it meant to be a man and women knew-and accepted-what it meant to be a woman. There was a time when people of color knew their place in America-and were happy to stay there. It was a time when businesses closed on Sundays, sports leagues ceased their activities and the only people on the street were those on their way to church. There was a time when the way a man chose to keep his family in line was his own business and he didn’t have to concern himself with visits from the police, nosy social workers or child protective services. There was a time when just wars were the only ones America ever fought and America always won. This was an America where opportunities abounded for anyone willing to work and there was no explanation for failure or poverty except laziness and dishonesty.

You will object that, in fact, no such America ever existed. You are correct. But this is a myth and myths need not be true. They need only be credible and credibility requires a low standard of proof. Older white men like me who see their America slipping away, who see a new diverse generation of young people far more at home in a developing world of computers, cross-cultural relationships, a changing economy and a job market requiring skills we don’t have are particularly vulnerable to seduction by this toxic nostalgia for a country that never was. We feel as though we are losing control, that our knowledge and expertise is not valued, that our beliefs and convictions are being disregarded and our positions of privilege are slipping away. We sense that we are growing old, becoming less relevant and approaching death. All of that is true, by the way. God is doing a new thing-and we don’t like it!

The Trump campaign deftly exploited this white, male rage making the 2016 election into a referendum on the demographic future of America.[1] It tapped into the white man’s visceral fear that his Norman Rockwell America is evolving into an increasingly feminist, multi-racial, multi-lingual, multi-cultural, multi-religious melting pot that he no longer recognizes as home. Trump’s handlers understood the deep-seated panic felt by white men when they hear that the white population will lose its majority status sometime between 2040 and 2050 and witness the increasing strength of women and people of color in business, entertainment and government. It should have come as no surprise that Trump’s berating women as “fat pigs” and “dogs” won him howls of approval from his white male base. Nor is it surprising that few in that base seemed at all concerned about their candidate’s sordid history of discrimination in his real estate developments or his derogatory remarks about Mexicans. To the contrary, they freely admit that his attractiveness stems from his willingness to say out loud what they are thinking.

Seen in this light, it is easy to understand the appeal of Trump’s claim that some “deep state” made up of liberals is really controlling the country. It is easy to see why universities are perceived as centers for “brainwashing” young people and scientists are regularly dismissed as white coated, God denying, America hating agents of the left. As preposterous as these notions might be, they make sense of the white man’s fears and put a face on the menace threatening him. Donald Trump validates the white man’s rage in a way that no other candidate in the field was able to do. He speaks their language and addresses their fears in ways that they can understand. His call for “making America great again,” taking us back to a simpler and happier time is understandably appealing to his base. In reality, however, this toxic nostalgia is the opiate ever threatening to derail the people of God and lure them back into captivity. Whatever direction America may take, disciples of Jesus must resist the temptation to look for salvation in the past.

We worship a forward-looking God. That does not mean that everything new, everything contemporary and everything promising change is necessarily good. It does mean, however, that today is the hand we have been dealt and we are not at liberty to throw it down and walk away from the table. It means that the future, however dark and threatening it can sometimes appear, is God’s future, the trajectory of which is determined by the resurrection of Jesus Christ. The end of all things is the reign of God which, whether we like it or not, takes in peoples of every tribe, tongue and nation. Our movement must ever be forward toward that goal, journeying hopefully, faithfully and confidently-not in our plans, programs, politics or ideology, but in the promise that, as Christ has died and has risen, Christ will come again.

Here is a poem by Miller Williams about history and forward-looking hope eschewing the lure of nostalgia.

Of History and Hope

We have memorized America,
how it was born and who we have been and where.
In ceremonies and silence we say the words,
telling the stories, singing the old songs.
We like the places they take us. Mostly we do.
The great and all the anonymous dead are there.
We know the sound of all the sounds we brought.
The rich taste of it is on our tongues.
But where are we going to be, and why, and who?
The disenfranchised dead want to know.
We mean to be the people we meant to be,
to keep on going where we meant to go.

But how do we fashion the future? Who can say how
except in the minds of those who will call it Now?
The children. The children. And how does our garden grow?
With waving hands—oh, rarely in a row—
and flowering faces. And brambles, that we can no longer allow.

Who were many people coming together
cannot become one people falling apart.
Who dreamed for every child an even chance
cannot let luck alone turn doorknobs or not.
Whose law was never so much of the hand as the head
cannot let chaos make its way to the heart.
Who have seen learning struggle from teacher to child
cannot let ignorance spread itself like rot.
We know what we have done and what we have said,
and how we have grown, degree by slow degree,
believing ourselves toward all we have tried to become—
just and compassionate, equal, able, and free.

All this in the hands of children, eyes already set
on a land we never can visit—it isn’t there yet—
but looking through their eyes, we can see
what our long gift to them may come to be.
If we can truly remember, they will not forget.

Miller Williams (1930-2015) was an American Poet, editor, critic, and translator born in Hoxie, Arkansas to a Methodist pastor. He was honored as the country’s third inaugural poet, reading the above poem at the start of former President Bill Clinton’s second term. Williams earned a Bachelor of Science in biology from Arkansas State University and an Masters in zoology from the University of Arkansas. He taught college science for many years before securing a job in the English department at LSU with the support of his friend, the noted author, Flannery O’Connor. Williams has written, translated, or edited over thirty books, including a dozen poetry collections. You can read more about Miller Williams and sample more of his poetry at the Poetry Foundation website.

Source: Some Jazz A While: Collected Poems, (c. 1999 by Miller Williams; pub. by University of Illinois Press).

Numbers 21:4-9

Numbers is the fourth book of the “Five Scrolls” or “Pentateuch,” sometimes referred to as the Five Books of Moses. Its title comes from the English translation of the Greek title, “Arithmoi,” given to the book in the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures). I am guessing the name “Numbers” stems from the first several chapters of the book which narrate a census of each of the twelve Israelite tribes, family by family. The Hebrew Scriptures use the title “Bemidbar” which means “in the wilderness” and aptly describes the content of this book narrating Israel’s forty years of wandering between the Exodus from Egypt and her entry into the land of Canaan. During this period the generation of Israelites that left Egypt with Moses and Aaron died and was succeeded by a new generation. From the old generation, only Moses and Joshua remain alive at the close of Numbers. It is clear that Joshua, not Moses, will lead this new generation into the land of Canaan. Throughout this period, the people are faced with numerous challenges that put their faith in God to the test. Though the faithfulness of Israel is often less than adequate, God remains steadfast from beginning to end.

Our lesson begins with the people of Israel setting out on a new leg of their journey following a victory over the Canaanite king of Arad. Arad was a Canaanite city of the Negeb located in present day Tell Arad, Israel. Its ruins consist of a large mound containing potsherds indicating that Arad was first occupied in the 4th Century B.C.E. The site is about fifty miles north of Kadish where Israel remained encamped for extended periods of time.

After this battle, the people set out from Mt. Hor (precise location of which is unknown) and take the “way of the Red Sea.” The Hebrew actually reads “reed sea,” but it is likely that the Red Sea is intended here. This road, which begins at Ezion-geber at the tip of the Gulf of Aqaba, would have taken Israel to the west of Edom rather than through it, the objective set forth in the text. Vs. 4. It is at this point that the people become discouraged, complain against Moses and even against God. They go so far as to call the manna with which God has been feeding them “this miserable food,” food to which the Psalms refer as “the bread of angels.” Psalm 78:25. Vs. 5. God responds by sending “fiery serpents” among the people, translated by the NRSV as “poisonous serpents.” The assumption seems to be that the serpents are merely a species of snake with a bite that causes a burning sensation. That would comport with our 19th Century penitent for interpreting the scriptures in such a way as not to violate cannons of the Enlightenment. But despite these noble efforts at ridding the Hebrew Scriptures of primitive supernaturalism, the problem remains. Not only are we lacking any known species of near eastern reptile capable of inflicting such a bite, but we are also faced with the biological reality that no snake of any kind travels in large groups. (When was the last time you saw a herd of snakes?) Nor do snakes typically attack without significant provocation.

More likely than not, the serpents were understood by the narrator, not as any known species of snake, but as one of the many mythical creatures thought to inhabit the desert, such as the “flying serpent” referenced in Isaiah 30:6. In any event, the creatures, whatever they are, were sent by God to punish Israel’s faithless complaining. Recognizing their sin, the people repent and turn to Moses for aid. As he has so often done before, Moses intercedes with God for the sake of Israel. Vs. 7.

What follows is truly fascinating and, in some respects, difficult to understand. God instructs Moses to fashion a bronze serpent and elevate it on a pole-seemingly a direct violation of the First Commandment (or the Second, depending on how one numbers them): “You shall not make for yourself a graven image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth…” Exodus 20:4Deuteronomy 5:8. The serpent, though greatly feared, was nevertheless a common symbol of healing and fertility. One wonders why Moses would be instructed to create such a symbol as an instrument of healing where it could so easily lead to idolatrous worship. Indeed, according to II Kings this very consequence occurred necessitating King Hezekiah’s destruction of the very same bronze serpent centuries later. II Kings 18:4.

Of course, the Abrahamic religions have always had ambivalent feelings about images. Islam forbids absolutely any image of God (Allah) and discourages (in varying degrees) images of any creature. Similarly, Christianity has vacillated between the extremes of icon adoration and iconoclasm. The danger of images is nowhere better illustrated than in our consistent depictions of God as male. Though one would be hard pressed to make from the scriptures the case for a gendered God, Christian art could hardly lead you to any different conclusion. Our images invariably turn out to be limited by our own cultural, sociological and ideological biases and therefore limiting in their portrayal of the God we claim to worship.

That said, it seems we cannot do without images. When we are physically forbidden to make them, our imagination continues to manufacture images. Moreover, the doctrine of the Incarnation affirms that the Word of God became flesh (John 1:14) and even that Jesus Christ is “the image of the invisible God…” Colossians 1:15. Our liturgy urges us to adore the Word made visible in Jesus that we might learn to love the God we cannot see. We are imaginative creatures who comprehend our universe by means of images.

Some years ago, I was very taken with a painting of the presentation of the infant Jesus at the temple in Jerusalem. The painting was by a Mexican artist whose depiction of the temple’s architecture along with the dress of Mary, Joseph, Simeon and Anna was with imagery drawn from his own cultural environment. I clipped a copy of this painting out of the magazine in which I found it. Some weeks later, I found the same biblical scene portrayed in an early Byzantine wall mural in National Geographic. I clipped this one also and put it into the same shoebox with the other print. I now have about half a dozen such portrayals of the Presentation. Singly, they are time bound, parochial and culturally circumscribed. In their plurality, they reflect from multiple dimensions a miracle too beautiful and magnificent for any single imagination to contain. They represent the impact of a marvelous narrative as it rolls through the ages gathering meaning as a snowball gathers mass. The difference between an icon and an idol is simply this: the idol points only to itself limiting the God it would represent to the confines of a single image, whereas the icon points beyond itself to that which is finally beyond imagination.

Psalm 107:1-3, 17-22

This is a psalm of praise. Verse 22 suggests that it was sung by the faith community before a sacrifice of thanksgiving. That the worshipers are “gathered from the lands, from the east and from the west, from the north and from the south” (Vs. 3) suggests that this psalm was composed after the Babylonian Exile and the rebuilding of the temple in Jerusalem. Though some of the exiled Jews returned home to Palestine, most of the Jewish population remained scattered throughout the Mediterranean world, making pilgrimages to Jerusalem on high holy days. Such pilgrim journeys were fraught with dangers, escape from which was one of many occasions for thanksgiving.

Our reading jumps from the introductory verses 1-3 to verse 17 stating that some of the worshipers now giving thanks had become “sick” through their sinful ways. The Hebrew is obscure at this point. Some translations of the Hebrew Scriptures favor the alternative reading: “some were fools, they took to rebellious ways.” New English Bible. Given this ambiguity, we are left to ponder whether the persons described here were rescued from sickness brought on by their rebelliousness or from their rebellious ways otherwise destructive to their wellbeing. Verse 18 stating that these individuals were so affected as to become “sickened” at the sight of food is merely figurative. It means little more than that food brought them no pleasure and that they had no appetite. Thus, there is no definitive indication that sickness is the affliction from which these worshipers were delivered. Rogerson, J.W. and McKay, J.W., Psalms 101-150, The Cambridge Bible Commentary (c. 1977 Cambridge University Press) p. 52; but see Weiser, Artur, The Psalms: A Commentary, The Old Testament Library (c. 1962 S.C.M. Press, Ltd.) p. 687 for a contrary view.

In verse 18 we are told that the worshipers “drew near to the gate of death.” The psalmist pictures death as a city drawing the hapless traveler into its fatal orbit. Again, the interpretation depends on our rendering of verse 17. In a world without much in the way of medicine and where illness was poorly understood, many of the sicknesses we view as non-life threatening brought fear and foreboding. Every sickness was a reminder of human mortality as it might well progress to something much worse than first appeared. So, too, bad choices can bring a person to ruin from which there seems no way of return. In either case, we are invited to glorify the God of Israel for turning even these seemingly hopeless circumstances into occasions for the exercise of God’s saving power.

God “sent his word” at verse 20 can be understood at several different levels. At the most superficial level it can be understood as a word of rebuke (assuming that the affliction is foolishness) or of encouragement (assuming the affliction to be illness). The bringer of the word can be linked to the word in such a way as to be an extension of that word. This notion of angelic intervention applies to help in the form of natural elements that serve as God’s “angels” or angelic beings serving at God’s behest. In later Judaism and in the New Testament, the word often became identified with God’s self. See John 1:1.

As always, I encourage you to read Psalm 107 in its entirety. This marvelous hymn recounts God’s faithfulness and salvation through the lenses of many differing human situations of want and need. In every case we are invited to “thank the Lord for his steadfast love, for his wonderful works to the sons of men.” Vs. 21.

Ephesians 2:1-10

“Dead through trespasses and sins” “following the prince of the power of the air” –how are we to make sense of these terms? To understand what Paul and his followers meant by this terminology, it helps to understand the context in which they lived and worked. The Roman Empire was the overriding and dominating presence throughout the Mediterranean world in the 1st Century. Under its reign society was rigidly and hierarchically ordered with the emperor at the apex and slaves making up the base of its pyramid of power. How you regarded and treated others in your life was dictated by your assigned place in this order. Jewett, Robert, Romans-A Commentary, Harmenia-A Critical and Historical Commentary on the Bible (c. 2007 by Fortress Press) p. 49 and the citation to Lendon, J.E., Empire of Honour: The Art of Government in the Roman World (c. 1997 by Oxford: Clarendon) pp. 289-292. For Paul and his associates, this way of “walking” (Vs. 1) is sinful by definition. As a Jew, Paul understood God as the one who liberated Israel from slavery for a life of freedom in covenant with God. As a disciple of Jesus, Paul believed that genuine divine power does not manifest itself top down through the imperial hierarchy, but from bottom up through the faithful life, obedient death and glorious resurrection of the Christ. Jesus topples Rome’s pyramid uniting into a single people persons of all nations, all classes and all races. Of this people, Jesus Christ, not Caesar is Lord. There is no hierarchy in this new people, but only a diversity of gifts exercised for the building up of the Body of Christ. Ephesians 4:11-16. This is the good work in which disciples of Jesus are called to walk. Vs. 10.

I believe Paul would have recognized much that was familiar to him in the United States of America. Though surely saddened, I doubt Paul would be shocked to discover that elections are bought by powerful corporate interests, that wealth is overwhelmingly concentrated in the hands of a very few while a growing sector of the population lacks even the basic necessities of life. I don’t think Paul would be shocked to find African American neighborhoods patrolled by an overwhelmingly white police department that looks far more like an occupation force than a public service. I think that Paul would recognize “the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience” (Vs. 2) every bit as much in our age as in his own.

What I am not sure Paul would recognize is the presence of the church in the midst of such a world as ours. Would Paul recognize a church that is so thoroughly woven into the cultural and economic fabric of our domination society that it blends naturally into the Americana landscape? Would Paul recognize as the meeting place of Christ’s Body a locked building with a “No Trespassing” sign over the door? Would Paul see in our still highly segregated Sunday mornings the descendants of his churches? Would Paul find any disciples of Jesus engaged in the good works in which they are called to “walk.”? Vs. 10.

Our failure to appreciate the extent to which the church’s very existence challenged the legitimacy of Rome’s culture of domination has compromised our preaching of this and other Pauline texts. As a result, our pastors, teachers and bishops remain largely blind to the dangerous, toxic mix of nationalism and deviant Christianity that constitutes so much of what has, ironically I think, been called evangelical Christianity and its insidious infiltration of our churches. See my post of July 26, 2017.

John 3:14-21

For some background on the larger context of this brief snippet from John’s gospel, my post from Sunday, March 16, 2014. Suffice to say that Jesus is engaged in a conversation with Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews, who has come to him by night. Nicodemus, having been told that no one can enter the Kingdom of God without being “born from above” mistakenly believes that Jesus means he must be born all over again-a seeming impossibility. When Jesus explains that entering the Kingdom is not so much a re-birth as it is a new birthing by God’s adoption of us through the Spirit, Nicodemus is still mystified. Jesus then says to Nicodemus what we have in our lesson for Sunday: “No one has ascended into heaven but he who descended from heaven, the Son of man. And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.” Vss. 13-15.

As pointed out by one prominent commentator, the words “in him” are associated with eternal life rather than with “believe.” Thus, “whoever believes, in him may have eternal life” is the preferred rendering. Barrett, C.K., The Gospel According to St. John, Second Ed. (c. C.K. Barrett, pub. by Westminster Press) p. 179; accord, Marsh, John Saint John, The Pelican New Testament Commentaries (c. John Marsh, pub. by Penguin Books, Ltd.) p. 187. Belief is not the engine of salvation unto eternal life. As Martin Luther points out, “the trust and faith of the heart alone make both God and an idol.” The Large Catechism of Martin Luther, published in The Book of Concord, edit. Theodore G. Tappert (c. 1959 by Fortress Press) p. 365. Eternal life is given in Jesus, the Word that evokes and directs faith toward himself. To read this verse in any other way suggests that faith is a precondition for God’s mercy rather than the heartfelt response to such mercy.

“Eternal life” is a term frequently used throughout the fourth gospel, though the other gospels use it occasionally as well. While used in Jewish and Christian literature to speak of life in the new age to come, John uses it in a more expansive way. For John, eternal life begins when one believes in Jesus. “And this is eternal life,” says Jesus, “that they know thee the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom thou hast sent.” John 17:3. Through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, the eternal life Jesus shares with the Father is mediated to the disciples. John 16:13-15. It is critical to emphasize John’s present tense lest eternal life be misunderstood as a distant hope realized only after death.

It is important to remember also that the Greek texts do not contain punctuation. Thus, the decision to end the quote from Jesus at verse 15, as does the RSV, is an editorial decision. The NRSV continues the quotation up to verse 21. Commentators are split on this point. For example, Professor Raymond Brown sides with the NRSV. Brown, Raymond E., The Gospel According to John I-XII, The Anchor Bible Commentary (c. 1966 by Doubleday) p. 149. Professor Lightfoot, however, would end the quote at verse 15. Lightfoot, R.H., St. John’s Gospel (c. 1960 by Oxford University Press) p. 118. I lean toward the NRSV rendering on this point. I see no compelling reason not to extend the quote up to verse 21 and so accept John 3:16 as Jesus’ pronouncement. “All Jesus’ words come to us through the channels of the evangelist’s understanding and rethinking, but the Gospel [of John] presents Jesus as speaking and not the evangelist.” Brown, supra, at 149. With this in mind, it is possible to read John 3:16 not as a doctrinal proposition, but as Jesus’ proclamation of his reconciling mission to us.

“God so love the world” Vs. 16. The word “world” is important. When I was in confirmation, my pastor encouraged us to substitute our own names in place of “world” when reciting this well-known verse. While I appreciate that he was trying to help us personalize Jesus’ ministry, there is a danger in such particularization. For too long the church has held a narrow, individualistic view of salvation. It is as though God were trying to save as many passengers as possible from the deck of a sinking ship. This wicked world is on cruise ship destined for hell. But faith is the lifeboat that can get you safely off the ship before she goes down. God, however, is determined to save the ship. “The earth is the Lord’s” the psalm tells us. Psalm 24:1. God is not conceding one inch of it to the devil. For this reason, our own individual salvation is inextricably bound up with the salvation of the rivers, forests, animals, the hungry, the oppressed and the oppressor.

The “sending” of the Son into the world as an expression of God’s love points in two directions. Vs. 16. First, it points to the miracle of the Incarnation. John treats this in his poetic prologue at John 1:1-18. It is important to understand that incarnation, the dwelling of God with humankind, has been the intent of God from the “beginning,” that is, before creation, the fall into sin and its consequences. The constant refrain throughout the prophets is “I will be their God and they shall be my people.” That refrain is echoed in the Book of Revelation where this divine desire is finally fulfilled. Revelation 21:3-4.

Second, the sending of the Son points forward to the cross-the price God is prepared to pay for dwelling in our midst, for becoming flesh that can be torn, broken and pierced by nails. This desire of God to dwell among us at the cost of God’s only beloved Son is the measure of divine love. Such love takes shape in our lives when we become passionate about God’s reign or, to use John’s language, when we enter into eternal life which we might well render life that is eternally significant. To believe in the resurrection is to believe that the God Jesus lived and died for is real; that the salvation he offers the world is worth living for and even dying for.

Jesus continues by telling us that he has been sent not to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him. Vs. 17. Yet condemnation there surely will be. “He who does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God.” Vs. 18. Often there is a twofold reaction to Jesus in the gospel of John placing in stark relief the response of faith to that of rejection and unbelief. It is not that Jesus himself judges any person. Rather, “the idea is that Jesus brings out what a man really is and the real nature of his life. Jesus is a penetrating light that provokes judgment by making it apparent what a man is.” Brown, supra, pp. 148-149. For, “this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil.” Vs. 19. This applies to all persons across the board. The question is how one responds to this judgment. Does one say “yes” to the judgment upon his or her life and turn from death to “eternal life” as we have defined it? Or does one shun the light, continue in sin and cause the judgment to become condemnation? In sum, this passage presupposes an encounter with Jesus such as is occurring with Nicodemus in our lesson. It should not be lifted out of this context and employed for speculation about who will or will not finally be saved.

One final observation: for all the dualism in this text-light vs. darkness; belief vs. unbelief; and knowledge vs. ignorance-terms which seem to mandate that one choose one side or the other, Nicodemus remains an ambiguous character throughout John’s gospel. He appears briefly in Chapter 7 when he questions his fellow members of the council about their rush to judgment on Jesus and his ministry. John 7:50-51. We meet him again after Jesus’ crucifixion as he goes with Joseph of Arimathea to give Jesus a proper burial. John 19:38-42. John seems to recognize that there is a twilight zone between darkness and light; belief and unbelief; understanding and ignorance. In this zone faith struggles to be born.

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[1] In November of 2008, for the first time in history, an election was not decided principally by white men. In the first election in which a major party candidate was an African American, the white vote went decisively in favor of John McCain over Barak Obama to the tune of twelve percentage points. But this clear win in America’s still biggest demographic could not offset overwhelming support among Hispanic, African American and Asian voters coupled with a substantial edge among women and the near unanimous support of the LGBTQ communities. The hope of white voters that the Obama victory was an historical fluke that would soon be erased once the panic generated by the recession of that era faded was dashed by Mr. Obama’s substantial electoral and popular victory over Mitt Romney in 2012. Though Mr. Romney won the white vote by ten percentage points, Mr. Obama’s support among minorities and women again carried the day. The electorate twice defied the will of the white man to put an African American in the White House-and white, male America was mad as hell about it. See Roper reports for 2008 and 2012.

The Ten Commandments are not for everybody; a poem by Adrienna Rich; and the Lessons for Sunday, March 4, 2018

See the source imageTHIRD SUNDAY IN LENT

Exodus 20:1-17
Psalm 19
1 Corinthians 1:18-25
John 2:13-22

PRAYER OF THE DAY: Holy God, through your Son you have called us to live faithfully and act courageously. Keep us steadfast in your covenant of grace, and teach us the wisdom that comes only through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

“I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.” Exodus 20:2.

The prologue to the Ten Commandments reminds us that these commands are not for general consumption. They are not a set of eternally valid, absolute moral principles meant to be binding on everyone. They are not given to the human race in general. The Ten Commandments presuppose a community united by the saving act of a gracious God who is committed to making them thrive. This community began as a tribe of escaped slaves fleeing oppression from the Egyptian empire at the close of the bronze age. The newly freed refugees are given to understand that they, who were no people, have been rescued from the jaws of imperial bondage to become God’s people in the Land of Canaan. Accordingly, the Commandments are given to protect their new life of freedom, justice and peace under the covenant with their God and to prevent them from evolving into another Egypt. Israel must not become one more oppressive kingdom among many. Israel is to be a light to the nations, an alternative way for human beings to live out their humanity.

For all of these reasons, stripping away the prologue identifying the “Who” and “why” of the Commandments, chiseling them into stone apart from their narrative context and placing them in front of a courthouse trivializes them. Unless we understand that the God who will not tolerate any rivals is the God of oppressed slaves; unless we understand that the sabbath was commanded for a people who knew no relief from work under the whip of the task master, unless we know that the commands protecting the sanctity of life, property and family were given to slaves who were themselves property, whose lives were cheap and who could be worked literally to death, we cannot begin to appreciate what these commands meant for Israel and what they might mean for us. The Ten Commandments were given to create, nurture and sustain a community of faith in the God who liberates slaves in the midst of a culture that routinely enslaves and oppresses. They must be understood as an emphatic “no” to imperial oppression, nationalism, hierarchy and war characterizing the present regime while pointing forward to the peaceable kingdom where humans live in peace with each other and in harmony with the earth and where God’s Spirit is poured out generously on all flesh.

It is also important for us to acknowledge that the Ten Commandments are, in part at least, the product of the same hierarchical and patriarchal culture that enslaved the people of Israel. We need to recognize and accept that they reflect many of the same oppressive assumptions underlying imperial civilization. For example, the Commandments deem women to be the property of their men. Consequently, adultery was not so much a sin between husband and wife as it was a sin by one man against another with the guilty wife being an accessory. While men are warned not to covet their neighbor’s wife, there is no similar prohibition against women coveting each other’s husbands. That is because there was nothing to covet. Women had no ownership rights to be coveted. Slavery, too, was a given in ancient Israel. Male and female slaves belonging to one’s neighbor are among the items of property one is admonished not to covet. There is no escaping the obvious. No reasonable person would want the Ten Commandments interpreted and enforced as they were originally promulgated.

As many womanist Hebrew scriptural scholars have pointed out ( e.g., Valerie Bridgeman, Irene S. Travis, Phillis Bird), we need to recognize the scriptures as time bound, contextual narratives reflecting and sometimes acquiescing in the oppressive assumptions of their age. Rather than rationalizing or explaining away its limitations, we need “to look a text squarely in what it actually says and then make ethical decisions about how it may function in the community.” Bridgeman, Valerie, “Womanist Approaches to the Prophets,” printed in The Oxford Handbook of the Prophets, edited by Sharp, Carolyn, J. (c. 2016 Oxford University Press) p. 487.  Additionally, we are called upon to examine these texts “from the vantage point of the marginalized, the oppressed, the silenced, or the voiceless in current society and in the ancient texts.” Ibid p. 483. In so doing, stories like those of Deborah, Haggar, Tamar, Ruth, Esther and many other narratives in which women act out of character come into sharper focus. These narratives challenge the perceived patriarchal norms, illustrating how the texts are not static givens, but living theaters within which the liberating desire of God is striving to break through the oppressive strictures of our present existence. Although the Commandments stand as a watershed against imperial oppression, they also testify to the need for further prophetic resistance.

In sum, the Ten Commandments exhibit the patriarchal and hierarchical assumptions that hold human beings in bondage as much as they point beyond them to a better way. They should therefore be seen not as the final word on morality but rather as a profound crack in oppressive imperial ideology that must invariably widen. They stand as “a mark of resistance, a sign,” as poet Adrienna Rich puts it. As such, they must be understood always first and foremost as God’s covenant provisions given to Israel in a concrete historical context that was very different from our own. We gentile believers must understand that they come to us only through Jesus’ gracious invitation into that covenant relationship with Israel’s God and must be interpreted always with reference to his obedient life, faithful death and glorious resurrection. The Commandments must be construed in ways that strengthen our covenant communities, build relationships of trust and cooperation between us, further protections for the most vulnerable among us and form us into a people of resistance, capable of testifying to the sovereignty of our gracious and liberating God over all other claims of power and authority.

Here is the rest of that poem by Adrienna Rich about resisting.

A Mark of Resistance

Stone by stone I pile
this carin of my intention
with the noon’s weight on my back,
exposed and vulnerable
across the slanting fields
which I love but cannot save
from floods that are to come;
can only fasten down
with the work of my hands,
these painfully assembled
stones, in the shape of nothing
that has ever existed before.
A pile of stones: an assertion
that this piece of country matters
for large and simple reasons.
A mark of resistance, a sign.

Source, Poetry Magazine, August 1957. Poet and essayist Adrienna Rich (1929-2012) was born in Baltimore, Maryland. Her father was a pathologist and professor at Johns Hopkins; her mother a former concert pianist. She graduated from Radcliffe University and married in 1953. She had three children with her husband, but the marriage ended with their separation in the 1960s. Rich’s prose collections are widely-acclaimed for their articulate treatment of politics, feminism, history, racism and many other topics. Her poetry likewise explores issues of identity, sexuality and politics.  Rich’s awards include the National Book Award, the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize, the Lannan Lifetime Achievement Award, the Bollingen Prize, the Academy of American Poets Fellowship and a MacArthur “Genius” Award. You can read more about Adrienna Rich and sample more of her poetry at the Poetry Foundation website.

Exodus 20:1-17

It has been twenty years since I first read “The Place of the Decalogue in the Old Testament and its Law,” Miller, Patrick D. (published in Interpretation, Vol. 48, no. 3, July 1989) p. 229. I still find that article to be one of the most helpful in understanding the place of the Ten Commandments in the Hebrew Scriptures. Dr. Miller points out three factors demonstrating the high importance of the Commandments within the Torah as a whole. First, the commandments are set forth twice in the Pentateuch in very different literary contexts. Whereas our lesson for Sunday has the Commandments delivered to Israel shortly after the Exodus from Mount Sinai on tablets still hot from the imprint of God’s finger, they are repeated verbatim at Deuteronomy 5:6-21. Here the people stand at the frontiers of the Promised Land having spent forty years as nomads in the wilderness. In both cases Israel is making a new beginning where she will encounter new opportunities, new challenges and new temptations.

Second, “the giving of the Commandments clearly presents their transmission as something that happened directly between God and the people.” Ibid. p. 230. The “Decalogue is thus perceived as direct revelation of God to the people, while the rest of the law is mediated through Moses.” Ibid. Though, to be sure, all of the law is deemed “God given,” the narratives emphasize that the Ten Commandments represent the starting point from which all subsequent law flows and in which all subsequent law is grounded.

Third, the language in which the Ten Commandments are given remains virtually identical in both Exodus and Deuteronomy. By contrast, there is significant variation between the collection of law given at Sinai by Moses in Exodus and Leviticus on the one hand and that given on the plains of Moab in Deuteronomy on the other. Miller goes on to analogize the Ten Commandments to the United States Constitution. Neither are “law” in the sense that they constitute statutes applying to specific circumstances. Like the Constitution, the Ten Commandments are fundamental principles from which specific legislation derives. “These foundations do not change. They continue in perpetuity to be the touchstone for all actions on the part of the people as they seek to live in community and order their lives.” Ibid. 231.

Here we need to exercise caution. While the Commandments may be said to embody moral priorities that are eternally valid for the community of Israel, they come to us “in earthen vessels” to borrow a Pauline phrase. II Corinthians 4:7. Like every other passage in the Scriptures, the Ten Commandments are historically and culturally conditioned. Nowhere is that more evident than in the Tenth (or Ninth and Tenth, depending on how you number them) Commandment prohibiting a man from coveting his neighbor’s wife…house, field, servants “or anything that is your neighbor’s.” Vs. 17. Obviously, a man’s wife is here classified as property. Some more contemporary renderings of the commandments change the wording to prohibit coveting of “one’s spouse.” As laudable as the intention may be, I find such efforts to modernize the Commandments dishonest and potentially damaging to the very cause these efforts promote. Not until we recognize the suffocating effect of patriarchy in the biblical world can we begin to appreciate the depth of heroism, ingenuity and creativity demonstrated in the lives of women in the biblical narratives who acted faithfully to further the redemptive purposes of Israel’s God. The stories of Sarah, Rebecca, Debra, Mariam, Esther and so many others bring into sharp focus the central truth of the Biblical story as a whole: the way things are is not the way things have to be-nor the way they always will be.

It is for this reason that Miller points out that we must discern “a kind of trajectory for each commandment as it is carried forward, a trajectory that holds to the intention of the particular commandment but also creates a dynamic of new or broader meanings that are seen to grow out if its basic intent.” Ibid. 234. If we are going to follow this trajectory faithfully, I believe that it is essential for us to keep a couple of things in mind. The prologue to the Commandments is critical because it tells us where they come from. “I am the Lord your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage.” Vs. 2. The Commandments are not moral, philosophical concepts formed in the world of ideas. The Commandments are given to a people newly liberated from slavery by the God who liberated them and wants to ensure that they do not slide back into slavery again.

It follows, therefore, that the Commandments are unintelligible apart from the covenant between the liberated people of Israel and the God who liberated them. The Commandments were not given for general public consumption. They will not function properly in just any old society. It is for this reason that the Commandments are out of place in front of municipal buildings, courts of law and public schools. The covenant is with Israel, not the United States of America. The Ten Commandments do not function meaningfully outside of that covenant. It cannot be overemphasized that the Torah was given to protect, enhance and strengthen the life of a free people bound to its God and to one another. The laws of the United States are designed to govern the civil life of a people of diverse loyalties, priorities and beliefs that may or may not include faith in Israel’s God. Losing sight of that distinction serves neither the Commandments nor the republic well.

Furthermore, any interpretation of the Commandments that enslaves us is dead wrong. Martin Luther rightly recognized that our use of the Commandments to win the love that God would give us freely and unconditionally enslaves us. So, too, when the Commandments are employed to stigmatize, exclude, dominate and marginalize people they are being misused. The polestar for interpreting the commandments is love: Love for God and love for the neighbor. As Jesus points out, the Commandments are gifts given to people for the benefit of people; people were not made for the purpose of following commands. That is why I keep telling my friends who seem fixated on “biblical views” of sexuality, marriage and God only knows what else that they can scream Bible verses at me until they turn purple and it won’t change my mind. If your interpretation of the law results in placing a stumbling block before someone God is calling into the Body of Christ, it’s wrong. That’s the end of the discussion.

There is much more that can and should be said about the Commandments. For those of you who might be interested in pre-canonical issues regarding the oral history, transmission and literary/historical source material for the Ten Commandments, I refer you to the excellent commentary of Dr. Brevard Childs. Childs, Brevard S., The Book of Exodus, The Old Testament Library, (c. 1974 by Brevard S. Childs, pub. by The Westminster Press) pp. 385-393. You might also consider giving the section on the Ten Commandments in Martin Luther’s Large Catechism a read. There is some wonderful material there on the First Commandment. If I were going to choose a specific Commandment to preach on this Sunday (I am not), I would go for the Eighth Commandment (under the Lutheran numbering) against bearing false witness. I believe it is probably the most frequently and flagrantly violated commandment of this Century. But don’t get me started on that…

Psalm 19

This wisdom psalm is a favorite of mine. Many commentators suggest that it is actually two psalms, verses 1-6 being a hymn praising God’s glory revealed in nature and verses 7-14 being a prayer which, like the lengthypsalm 119, praises God’s law. I am not convinced that we are dealing with two psalms here. Both sections praise God’s glory, the first as it is revealed in the created universe and the second as it is revealed to the human heart in God’s laws. Quite possibly, the psalmist did make use of two different poetic fragments to construct this poem. Nevertheless, I believe, along with other commentators, that a single author skillfully brought these two strands together weaving them into a single theme of praise for God’s glory. See, e.g., Rogerson, J.W. and McKay, J.W., Psalms 1-50, The Cambridge Bible Commentary (c. 1977 Cambridge University Press) p. 86.

The term “glory” as used in the Psalms refers to God’s self-revelation in all its splendor. Such revelation naturally inspires awe. The “vault of heaven” or “firmament” held back the waters thought to weigh over the earth. Genesis 1:6-8. Only the merciful and creative Word of God keeps these waters and those beneath the earth from rising up and breaking through the barriers within which God keeps them and enveloping the earth such as almost occurred in the Great Flood. Genesis 7:11-16. The stars inhabiting the firmament, though not gods, nevertheless give praise to God in their silent adherence to their courses and faithful discharge of light. Vss. 2-4. During the day this firmament forms a “tent” for the sun, poetically compared first to a bridegroom emerging from his tent and then to an athlete taking the field. Vs.4b-6. Just as the articulate silence of the stars speaks volumes about God’s creative handiwork, so the regular journey of the sun across the sky testifies to God’s constancy. Though none of these wonders are divine, they are far from inanimate objects. All of them derive their being from their Creator and so cannot help but magnify God’s glory.

Beginning at verse 7 the focus turns from God’s glory reflected in the natural world to God’s perfection made known through the Torah. Vs. 7. We need to exercise care here in our understanding of the words translated from Hebrew as “law” and “precept.” Law or “Torah” is more than a collection of rules and regulations. For Israel, Torah is the shape Israel’s life is intended to take under covenant with the Lord her God. Attention to Torah “makes wise the simple” (Vs. 7), it rejoices the heart and enlightens the eyes. Vs. 8. The wise and understanding crave Torah as one would crave honey and desire it as a lesser mind might yearn for wealth. Vs. 10. Yet Torah is not an end in itself, but the invitation to learning and practices that train the heart to perceive God’s voice. Vs. 11. Mechanical obedience, however, is not enough to “keep back thy servant from presumptuous sins.” Vs. 13. The psalmist must pray for God to “Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in thy sight.” Vs. 14.

This beautiful prayer paints a portrait of faithfulness acquired through a lifetime of attentiveness to the miracle of the universe and the witness of the Scriptures. Both the Word and the world it has called into existence bear witness to the glory of God. Neither witness is complete without the other.

1 Corinthians 1:18-25

This is perhaps the most profound piece that Paul ever wrote. Why is the cross “folly” to those who are perishing? How is it “power” to those of us who are being saved? The cross is the power of God to refrain from retaliating against us, to forgive us and to continue loving us in spite of our rejection and murder of God’s Son. It is, as I said last week, the power of the glue holding the Trinity in unity over our own sin and the devil’s wiles that would pull it apart. To all who view power in terms of coercive force, the power to forgive and the refusal to retaliate appears as weakness. That is why there really is no substantial difference between militarists who view violence as the primary means of dealing with opposition and so-called Christian realists who accept it only as a tragic last resort. It is only a matter of degree. Both maintain that when it comes to dealing with Hitler, ISIS or any other like tyrant, raw coercive power is the only sure bet. To think otherwise is naïve and unrealistic.

The trouble with Christian realists is that they focus on the wrong reality. Jesus’ resurrection redefines reality. The resurrection, as I have said before, represents a divine turning of the other cheek. It is the paradigm for a disciple’s response to violence. It is tempting to invoke here the success of non-violent movements such as those led by Martin Luther King, Jr. and Mahatma Gandhi to bolster the case. It is a temptation, however, that I think must be resisted. At best, these movements suggest that non-violent resistance can be successful. They do not, however, negate the converse. In some circumstances, non-violence may not “work.” The movement might be crushed. For every Selma there is a Tiananmen Square. Does that not bring us back again to the very “realism” we have rejected? Yes, of course we should begin with non-violence and exhaust all avenues of non-violent resistance. Then what? Pull out of our hip pockets the revolver we have been keeping at the ready all the time just in case the police start using real bullets instead of tear gas and fire hoses? Again, the difference between such conditional commitments to non-violence and frank acceptance of violence as a permissible means to a just end is simply one of degree.

As I read Paul and as I read the gospels, the measure of our commitment to Jesus’ way can never be based on some estimate of its potential effectiveness. The cross, by any reasonable measure, is hardly an effective means to any just end. If ever there were a time when violence might have been justified, it would have been in the Garden of Gethsemane on the night of Jesus’ arrest. If Peter was forbidden to strike with the sword in order to save God’s only begotten Son from torture and death, when in God’s name (literally!) is it ever acceptable to strike with the sword? To follow Jesus in this way under the shadow of the Third Reich seems like “folly” from the perspective of geopolitical realism. But if Paul is speaking the truth, then this very folly is the power and wisdom of God.

I believe that Paul’s message here is more urgent than ever before. Ours is a world on the brink of violent collapse. I am not referring here to the obvious, i.e., terrorism; school shootings; police brutality; hate crimes and the like. I am speaking of the subtler forms of violence that inhabit our civil (uncivil!) discourse; predatory commercial practices; exploitation of workers with the double edged sword of longer hours and decreased compensation/benefits; coercive and authoritarian management techniques whether at Wall Street firms or church council meetings. Wherever power is understood as the ability to force others to do what we want (or think in our heart of hearts is what they ought to do), the seeds of violence are already sown. Whenever we delude ourselves into thinking that the ends will justify the means, we set ourselves up for the unpleasant discovery that violent means contaminate the ends we seek.

John 2:13-22

Unlike Matthew, Mark and Luke who place Jesus’ cleansing of the temple near the end of his ministry, John places it at the very beginning. This visit to the temple in Jerusalem takes place near the feast of Passover. It is one of three Passovers mentioned in the gospel, the others being John 6:4 and John 11:55. We are told that Jesus “went up” to Jerusalem. That is confusing to us moderns of the northern hemisphere because Jesus was actually traveling south from Galilee to Jerusalem in Judea. We would therefore say he was going “down” to Jerusalem. Throughout both the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament, however, one always goes “up” to Jerusalem from whatever direction s/he is proceeding.

This drama took place in the outer court of the temple. The oxen, sheep and doves were being sold to worshipers coming to offer sacrifice. Because imperial coins used in ordinary commerce had images of Caesar on them, they were in violation of the Second Commandment forbidding the making of images. Accordingly, these coins were unfit for payment of the temple tax referred to in Matthew 17:24-27. The much maligned “money changers” therefore provided a necessary service in exchanging this currency for money acceptable for commerce in the temple. Of course, there was an exchange fee involved!

The whip of cords fashioned by Jesus in verse 15 was probably made out of rushes used by the animals for bedding. As such, it was not suitable nor intended as a weapon and does not appear to have been used in this way. The objective appears to have been to clear the temple of the animals and their handlers which would have been accomplished by driving the animals out with the switch. This, at least, has been the understanding of the church from its earliest days as evidenced by the following story recounted by Cosmas Indicopheustes about Theodore of Mopsuestia who lived in the 5th Century C.E.

“Rabbula previously showed much friendship toward the famous interpreter (Theodore) and studied his works. Yet when, having gone to Constantinople to attend the Council of the Fathers (381) he was accused of striking priests, and he responded that Our Lord had also struck when he entered the temple, the Interpreter arose and reprimanded him saying, ‘Our Lord did not do that; he only spoke to the men, saying “take that away,” and turned over the tables. But he drove out the bullocks and the sheep with the blows of his whip.’” Wenda, Wolska, La Topographie de Cosmas Indicopleustes (c. 1962 by Presses Universitaires Francaises) p. 91 cited in The Politics of Jesus, Yoder, John Howard (c. 1972 by William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.) p. 51.

However one understands the text, it is surely a slim reed on which to build a case for violence based on Jesus’ ministry. As Yoder points out, Jesus was fully in control of events following the temple’s cleansing. It would have been an easy thing for him to exploit the confusion in the temple and the crowd’s enthusiasm for an assault on the likely unsuspecting Roman fortress next door. Jesus did no such thing. Clearly, Jesus could hardly have been perceived as potentially violent given that his opponents felt free to engage him in conversation and question his authority. Rather than threatening violence, Jesus made himself vulnerable to the violence of his adversaries who he knows will “destroy” him. Vs. 19. See Yoder, supra at 51-52.

There is a play on words here between “house of prayer” which the temple was designed to be and “house of market” or “house of trade” which it had become under the current religious establishment. Vs. 16. It is important to keep in mind that the temple in Jesus’ day was constructed by Herod the Great, the non-Jew appointed “King of the Jews” by the Romans. The Romans took a generous share of the considerable profits generated though temple operations, financing for which fell heavily on the backs of the poor. Thus, so far from being a house of prayer, the temple had become an instrument of commercial exploitation.

“Zeal for thy house will consume me.” Vs. 17. This is a citation to Psalm 69:9, a personal prayer for deliverance from enemies. There is some indication that this prayer may have been edited to fit circumstances during the period when the temple was in ruins following the Babylonian conquest in 587 B.C.E. The psalmist laments the state of affairs. Perhaps s/he is one who, like the prophets Haggai and Zechariah, was eager to see the temple rebuilt, but faced opposition from his/her own people who had other priorities, from Samaritans opposed to the rebuilding project or both. Just as the psalmist’s zeal for rebuilding the temple has earned him or her opposition, so too, Jesus’ determination to cleanse the temple is now bringing him into conflict with the religious authorities in Jerusalem.

“What sign have you to show us for doing this?” vs. 18. Jesus’ warrant of authority has already been given by Jesus in his referring to the temple as his Father’s house. Vs. 16. But the “Jews” now seek from him a “sign.” It is critical to recognize that the term “Jews” refers collectively to the religious leadership governing the temple. It specifically does not refer to the Jewish people as a whole. The temple authorities quite understandably feel that Jesus’ radical action requires a convincing show of authorization. This they will receive in due time. “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” Vs. 19. In near Clintonesque fashion, everything turns on what “this” means. Jesus’ opponents assume that “this temple” means the structure in which they are standing. Vs. 20. Jesus, we are told, is speaking of his body which will replace the temple as the locus of worship. Vs. 21. More will be said about this in Jesus’ conversation with the Samaritan woman in chapter 4. John 4:19-26. As with so much else in John’s gospel, the full significance of this event in the life of Jesus will become clear only after he has been raised from death. Vs. 22.

Prophetic attacks upon the temple cult in Jerusalem were not new at the time of Jesus. Jeremiah famously predicted (accurately as it turned out) that the temple would be destroyed as it had become “a den of robbers.” Jeremiah 7:8-15. Indeed, the prophet Micah had given the same prophetic warning a century before. Jeremiah 26:18Micah 3:12. The temple was thus an ambiguous symbol throughout Israel’s history. At its best, the temple was a reminder of God’s abiding presence with and for Israel, a sacred space for worship, praise, lament, forgiveness and thanksgiving. At its worst, it promoted a magical view of God as subject to Israel’s control and manipulation through sacrificial rites and liturgies. As noted earlier, the temple became an instrument of Roman exploitation in the time of Jesus.

It might be worth considering the extent to which our sanctuaries, programs and institutions throughout the church function in destructive and self-serving ways rather than in ways that are life giving. A leader in my own Lutheran Church remarked recently that when a congregation is strapped for cash, the first to go is the organist/music director; then the pastor; and, last of all, the building. Once the church can no longer support the building, it folds. These priorities are, as any sensible middle schooler would put it, “Bass Ackwards.”

 

What would you die for? A poem by Margaret Walker; and the lessons for Sunday, February 25, 2018

SECOND SUNDAY IN LENT

Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16
Psalm 22:23-31
Romans 4:13-25
Mark 8:31-38

PRAYER OF THE DAY: O God, by the passion of your blessed Son you made an instrument of shameful death to be for us the means of life. Grant us so to glory in the cross of Christ that we may gladly suffer shame and loss for the sake of your Son, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

For what are you willing to die? Answer that question honestly and your answer will tell you a lot about yourself. The operative terms are “honestly” and “you.” Political leaders compete with each other in heaping praise on fallen soldiers and the virtues of the nation for which they died. But that rings hollow coming from men who managed to shirk their military service through fabricated medical conditions or appeals to high level government connections. Patriotism comes a bit easier these days now that we have a soldier class willing to do the fighting. It was different back in the days when the duty of national defense fell upon the whole citizenry (ideally at least) and we understood that the next young man coming home from Vietnam in a flag draped coffin could very well be our brother, father or friend. Under these very different circumstances, we were compelled daily to ask ourselves whether the objectives of this war were worth the human cost.

By contrast, we are now into the fifteenth year of America’s longest war and most of the time we are only peripherally aware that it is going on. That is because the tab for the human cost is being picked up by someone else. Because a group of volunteers are sending their children to fight and die, I needn’t send my own. It is enough that I show up each year at the Veteran’s Day and Memorial Day celebrations to wave my flag and listen to an inspiring speech or two. It is much easier to pledge allegiance to the flag and the republic for which it stands without asking whether that allegiance is merited or worth the cost when I know in my heart that it will never cost me anything. Give me a free car and I will take it with thanks. But if I have to buy it, you had better believe I’ll take a much closer look under the hood and think long and hard about what I will have to give up in order to make the purchase. In all likelihood, I will decide to hang onto my money and my old clunker. How much more my life!

So what are you willing to die for? I guess we never know the answer to that question until we have to face it. Whenever there is a shooting, fire or some other disaster in a public building, there are those who run in blind terror for the door and a few who confront the danger, risking their own lives to save others. I don’t know that any psychiatric/sociological studies have been done to determine what makes these people we call “heroes” different from the rest of us. But I suspect this difference is rooted in a deeply imbedded commitment to something bigger than oneself that compels one to sacrifice everything-even life itself-in the service of that something. One does not become a hero in the heat of the moment. A hero is often indistinguishable from the rest of us until the crisis arrives that reveals him/her for who s/he is.

I think our admiration for heroes is more than a tribute to their individual courage. I believe we are secretly envious of what they have and what we often lack, namely, something so beautiful, true and good that it is worth dying for. As Dr. Martin Luther King once said, “A man who has nothing he’ll die for has nothing to live for.” Or, as Jesus puts it in today’s gospel, “those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.” Mark 8:35. Disciples of Jesus believe that the kingdom of God is worth living for. Reconciliation among nations and people, peace with God, peace within the human community and peace between ourselves and our planet are visions worth living for, sacrificing for and even dying for.

Like many of you, I have been watching the Winter Olympics. I can only imagine how many countless hours of practice, how many sprained muscles and bruised limbs, how many disappointments and setbacks the young athletes standing on the podium must have experienced on the long road to receiving their medals. Yet I doubt that any of them regrets a single minute of that difficult journey. At that moment, they are not thinking about the hours of sleep lost, the parties they did not attend or desserts they had to forego along the way. All of these sacrifices pale in comparison with the satisfaction of finally achieving the dream that inspired them. Surely life under the gentle reign of God into which Jesus invites us is worth at least the same level of dedication, loyalty and sacrifice-and promises us so much more!

Those of us, like myself, who have grown up relatively privileged and know nothing of discrimination, poverty, persecution and alienation often find it difficult to relate to Jesus’ call to take up the cross. We often trivialize this call, equating the cross with some hardship we experience in the midst of an otherwise untroubled life. We say of a difficult relative, a sore back or an unsatisfying job, “this is my cross to bear.” No. The cross is the shape God’s reign takes in a world that is hostile to it. It is the inevitable friction that comes with living the values of the Kingdom in a culture that rejects them. I think that few people understand the fullness of that kingdom and the cost of loving it better than Black Americans whose lives have so often been the very antithesis of God’s reign, yet who desire it, seek it and struggle for it so insistently. It is to the poetry and spirituality of Back poets that I think we can turn to recapture the meaning of the cross and the hope of the resurrection. It is for that reason that I feature the excellent poem of Margaret Walker in this week’s post.

For My People

For my people everywhere singing their slave songs
repeatedly: their dirges and their ditties and their blues
and jubilees, praying their prayers nightly to an
unknown god, bending their knees humbly to an
unseen power;

For my people lending their strength to the years, to the
gone years and the now years and the maybe years,
washing ironing cooking scrubbing sewing mending
hoeing plowing digging planting pruning patching
dragging along never gaining never reaping never
knowing and never understanding;

For my playmates in the clay and dust and sand of Alabama
backyards playing baptizing and preaching and doctor
and jail and soldier and school and mama and cooking
and playhouse and concert and store and hair and
Miss Choomby and company;

For the cramped bewildered years we went to school to learn
to know the reasons why and the answers to and the
people who and the places where and the days when, in
memory of the bitter hours when we discovered we
were black and poor and small and different and nobody
cared and nobody wondered and nobody understood;

For the boys and girls who grew in spite of these things to
be man and woman, to laugh and dance and sing and
play and drink their wine and religion and success, to
marry their playmates and bear children and then die
of consumption and anemia and lynching;

For my people thronging 47th Street in Chicago and Lenox
Avenue in New York and Rampart Street in New
Orleans, lost disinherited dispossessed and happy
people filling the cabarets and taverns and other
people’s pockets and needing bread and shoes and milk and
land and money and something—something all our own;

For my people walking blindly spreading joy, losing time
being lazy, sleeping when hungry, shouting when
burdened, drinking when hopeless, tied, and shackled
and tangled among ourselves by the unseen creatures
who tower over us omnisciently and laugh;

For my people blundering and groping and floundering in
the dark of churches and schools and clubs
and societies, associations and councils and committees and
conventions, distressed and disturbed and deceived and
devoured by money-hungry glory-craving leeches,
preyed on by facile force of state and fad and novelty, by
false prophet and holy believer;

For my people standing staring trying to fashion a better way
from confusion, from hypocrisy and misunderstanding,
trying to fashion a world that will hold all the people,
all the faces, all the adams and eves and their countless generations;

Let a new earth rise. Let another world be born. Let a
bloody peace be written in the sky. Let a second
generation full of courage issue forth; let a people
loving freedom come to growth. Let a beauty full of
healing and a strength of final clenching be the pulsing
in our spirits and our blood. Let the martial songs
be written, let the dirges disappear. Let a race of men now
rise and take control.

Source: This is My Century: New and Collected Poems (c. 1989 University of Georgia Press, 1989) Margaret Walker (1915 –1998) was an American poet and writer. She was part of the African-American literary movement in Chicago, known as the Chicago Black Renaissance. Her works include the award-winning poem For My People (1942) and the novel Jubilee (1966). She was born in Texas, Alabama to a minister who, along with her mother, taught their daughter philosophy and poetry as a child. The family moved to New Orleans when Walker was a young girl. She attended school there, including several years of college, before she left home and moved north to Chicago.

Walker received her Bachelor of Arts Degree from Northwestern University. In 1936 she began work with the Federal Writers’ Project under the Works Progress Administration created under the Roosevelt administration. During that time, she was a member of the South Side Writers Group, a circle of influential African-American writers and poets formed in the 1930s in Chicago. In 1942 she received her master’s degree in creative writing from the University of Iowa. In 1965 she returned to that school to earn her Ph.D. Walker married Firnist Alexander in 1943 and moved to Mississippi to be with him. They had four children together.

You can read more about Margaret Walker and sample more of her poetry at the Poetry Foundation website. You may also want to explore the profound work of other Harlem/Chicago Renaissance poets featured on the website in recognition of Black History Month.

Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16

As observed last week, “Genesis is a rich composite of many different oral traditions, written sources, and editorial hands…The authors incorporated everything from the myths of ancient Near Eastern high culture to the local legends of Palestinian Bedouins. We can identify scores of different literary genres deriving from as many sociological settings.” Mann, Thomas W., “All the Families of the Earth: The Theological Unity of Genesis,” Interpretation, Vol. 45, No. 4, October 1991, p. 350. For more specifics as to written sources, see the online article Documentary Hypothesis; for a discussion of literary genres found throughout the Hebrew Scriptures see Coats, George W., Genesis: With an Introduction to Narrative Literature, The Forms of the Old Testament Literature, Vol. I (c. 1983 Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.). Yet as diverse as its literary and written components are, we must focus on “the theological integrity of biblical narratives in their present canonical shape, rather than as dismembered pieces…” Mann, supra, at 343.That is to say, as fascinating as the process of biblical formation may be, it is the finished product that commands our primary attention.

As noted last week, Genesis 1-11 forms the backdrop for Israel’s story. It paints the picture of a Creator deeply in love with his creation, though deeply grieved by the evil and brokenness that have infected it. Chiefly is this Creator God grieved by the violence of human beings made in God’s own image. Because of humanity’s crimes, the earth lies under a curse. Humanity is at odds with its Creator, at odds with the earth from which it was taken and at odds with itself, being divided into nations, tribes and clans separated by language and culture. In Genesis 12:1-3 God begins to undo the curse by calling Abram to follow God’s leading into a land where God will make of him “a great nation” so as to “be a blessing.” It is by Abram, Sarai and their descendants that God will bring blessing to a world lying under the curse of sin. It is therefore not too far a stretch to call the Book of Genesis “a book about dysfunctional families and the ways in which God seeks to use those families as agents of divine grace to ‘all the families of the earth,’” as one commentator has done. Mann, supra, at 341.

This Sunday’s lesson takes us deeper into God’s covenant with Abram. It is part of a larger narrative comprising all of Genesis 17 in which circumcision is introduced as a definitive mark of the covenant people, so much so that “any uncircumcised male who is not circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin shall be cut off from his people; he has broken my covenant.” Genesis 17:14. The people of God are to be distinguished from all other nations and tribes by an irreversible physical sign. Precisely because it is irreversible, circumcision makes it impossible to deny affiliation with Israel. Moreover, this is a sign normally imposed shortly after birth and so is hardly a matter of choice.

If the whole of this chapter were included in the reading, it might be worth pondering how indoctrination into faith squares with our modern emphasis on individual rights and freedoms. The famed scientist and atheist activist Richard Dawkins recently remarked, “What a child should never be taught is that you are a Catholic or Muslim child, therefore that is what you believe. That’s child abuse.” Daily Mail, April 22, 2013. In a culture where protestant Christianity is so thoroughly integrated into our notions of respectable citizenship, Dr. Dawkins’ assertion comes across as rather preposterous. Yet I think he puts his finger on something important. Our laws are shaped by public consensus on what constitutes responsible behavior. As recently as when I was a child (alright, maybe that isn’t recent!), spanking was an accepted form of discipline. While my parents limited the practice to an occasional front hand swat on the rump, it was not uncommon for fathers to “take the belt” to their children. No one would have considered reporting that to the police and I doubt the police would have intervened if they had. Discipline of children, within reasonable limits, was the prerogative of parents.

Of course, our understandings of “reasonable limits” change and evolve with time. We now understand (or at least we should) that physical punishment is at best ineffective and, at worst, damaging to child development. Accordingly, our laws governing child protection now deem abusive many practices that were common place in my childhood. That, in my view, is a welcome development. But in what direction might our laws evolve should societal consensus conclude that religious indoctrination is harmful? If one assumes that faith, morals and values are matters purely of individual choice, that children should be raised in environments of intellectual neutrality toward competing religious claims so that their choices in that realm are free and uncoerced, where does that leave circumcision?  Infant baptism? Catechetical instruction? Is it perhaps time to consider whether our fierce loyalty to individual freedom is not misplaced? Is freedom to be equated with individual autonomy? Is critical thinking necessarily incompatible with being raised as a member of a faith community? Is not raising a child in an environment of strict religious neutrality also a kind of indoctrination? Some of these questions are addressed in a fine article by Michael Brendon Dougherty published in The Week.

But I digress. My point is to draw out the tension in this entire chapter between the promise to Abram and Sarai that they will be parents of “many nations” and the mark of circumcision that singles out the particular nation of blessing. While the Book of Genesis makes much of the line of blessing traced through Abram (and not Lot), Isaac (not Ishmael) and Jacob (not Esau), we see repeated instances where this special people becomes an agent of blessing to those outside of the covenant. Abram pleads with God to spare the righteous in Sodom resulting in the rescue of Lot and his family. Genesis 18:22-33. Jacob’s service to his uncle Laban brings about a substantial increase in Laban’s flocks. Genesis 30:29-30. Through Joseph, God spares Egypt from the ravages of a seven year famine. Genesis 45:4-15Genesis 50:19-21. This tension between the uniqueness of Israel among the nations and its mission to the nations finds expression throughout the Hebrew Scriptures. If the books of Ezra and Nehemiah represent the extreme in guarding Israel’s unique identity among the nations, perhaps the prophetic oracles of Isaiah 40-55 best articulate Israel’s mission of blessing to the nations.

This tension is perhaps helpful for the church in rethinking her own mission to the world. To a very large degree we have accepted uncritically the premise that the Christian mission to the world is to make everyone a Christian. We have assumed that the command to “make disciples of all nations” means to make all people of every nation into disciples. The job of a witness, however, is not that of the prosecutor or the public defender. Witnesses do not persuade. They witness to what they have seen and heard. The witness will be made passionately, forcefully and convincingly. But the work of persuasion is left to the Holy Spirit to call into the church those whom Jesus has chosen.

It is important to keep in mind that this “election” is not “selection.” The call to discipleship, like the call to Abram, is one of service to the world for the sake of the world. God is not snatching a few select souls from a sinking ship. God is commissioning a people to bear witness to God’s stubborn determination to save the entire ship! To be chosen is to be elected for the purpose of reconciling the world to the gentle reign of God.

There is a seemingly bitter irony in the change of name from Abram, meaning “Exalted Father,” to Abraham, meaning “Father of a multitude.” The man is ninety-nine years old and childless at this point. Equally implausible is the change of Sarai’s name to Sarah, meaning “princess.” That this barren Bedouin couple should be declared progenitors of a people who one day will possess and rule the land where they now live essentially as illegal aliens seems like a cruel joke. No wonder that the promise invoked bitter laughter from Sarah in the very next chapter! Genesis 18:9-15. The stage is set for the God of Israel to do exactly what God does best: “He raises the poor from the dust, and lifts the needy from the ash heap, to make them sit with princes, with the princes of his people. He gives the barren woman a home, making her the joyous mother of children.” Psalm 113:7-9.

“[I]t is obvious that the book of Genesis does not stand on its own but looks beyond its own content to unresolved issues.” Mann, Supra, at 350. Just as the first eleven chapters of Genesis set the stage for the call of Abram and the stories of his extended family, so the Book of Genesis itself sets the stage for the liberation of Israel from bondage in Egypt that will occupy the narrative in the Book of Exodus. The state of slavery under Egypt will find its liberating contrast in the life of freedom embodied in Torah.

Psalm 22:23-31

This is a psalm of lament that begins with the words familiar to us from Jesus’ cry of dereliction on the cross: “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” vs. 1; cf. Mark 15:34Matthew 27:46. You would never guess that from our reading, however, which begins at vs. 23. Verse 22 marks a transition point in the psalm. Up to this point, the psalmist has been pouring out his or her complaint to God, describing the torment and ridicule s/he experiences at the hands of his or her enemies and crying out for deliverance. Though no such deliverance has yet occurred, the psalmist is confident that God will soon intervene to rescue him or her. So sure is the psalmist of God’s impending salvation that s/he is even now declaring thankfulness, praise and testimony to these saving acts. The psalmist takes delight in knowing that God’s intervention on his or her behalf will bring glory and praise to God from future generations who will learn from his or her experience that God is indeed faithful.

I should add that some commentators have argued that vss. 1-21 and vss. 22-31 constitute two separate psalms, the first being a lament and the second a hymn of thanksgiving. Perhaps that was on the minds of the lectionary makers when they divided the psalm as they did (assuming, of course, that they have minds-something I often question). I am not at all convinced by their arguments, however, which seem to hinge on the dissimilarities of lament versus thanksgiving between the two sections. Psalms of lament frequently contain a component of praise or promise of thanksgiving for anticipated salvation. See, e.g.Psalm 5Psalm 7Psalm 13. Artur Weiser, while maintaining the unity of the psalm, asserts that the psalm was, in whole or in part, composed after the psalmist’s prayer has been answered. Weiser, Artur The Psalms, a Commentary, The Old Testament Library, (c. 1962 SCM Press), p. 219. That interpretation does not fit the language of the psalm which speaks of salvation in the future tense. This salvation, though real, is nevertheless an anticipated act of God.

It has been suggested by some commentators that Jesus’ cry from the cross might not have been a cry of dereliction at all, but that the gospel writers meant to say that Jesus was praying this psalm from the cross. Clearly, the body of the psalm reflects at many points precisely what Jesus was experiencing at the hands of his enemies, so much so that New Testament scholars argue over the extent to which the psalm might have influenced the telling of the passion story. However these questions might be resolved, there is obviously a parallel between the psalmist praising God for deliverance s/he cannot yet see and Jesus’ faithful obedience to his heavenly Father even to death on the cross. In both cases, faith looks to salvation in God’s future even when there appears to be no future.

Romans 4:13-25

In this snippet from Paul’s Letter to the church at Rome, Paul lifts up Abraham as an example of saving faith. It is important to emphasize that Paul understands “faith” not as subscription to creedal or doctrinal formulae, but as trust in God’s promises. In Abraham’s case, the promise was to give him an heir and to give his descendants the land of Canaan. As we have seen, the promise was problematic due both to the Abraham and Sarah’s advanced age and their infertility. The biological clock had ceased ticking for both of them ages ago. But for Abraham, age and infertility did not enter into the equation. God had made a promise and would keep the promise. It was up to God, not Abraham, to figure out how to make it all work.

Of course, we know that Abraham was sometimes less than trusting. He even tried to “help God out” by resorting to what amounts to surrogate parenting. He took Sarah’s slave girl, Hagar, as a concubine and managed to father Ishmael with her. But God did not need Abraham’s help and insisted that the covenant promises would be kept through a child of Sarah. This takes nothing away from Paul’s point. However shaky and imperfect Abraham’s trust in God may have been, God’s faithfulness never wavered. That is why Abraham “grew strong in his faith.” Vs. 20. The implication is that his faith was not so strong to begin with. God’s faithfulness precedes our faith and makes that faith possible. It is because God raised Jesus from death that we dare to trust that the reign of God Jesus proclaimed is a present reality despite all evidence to the contrary in the world around us. Because God faithfully returned to Jesus the life Jesus trustingly commended into God’s hands, we can entrust our lives to God knowing that we will receive them back again restored, sanctified and made new.

Paul also makes the point that children of Abraham are those who share the faith of Abraham-not necessarily those who share his genes. Again, Paul appeals to the missional aspect of Israel’s existence expressed throughout the Hebrew Scriptures. I cannot emphasize strongly enough that Paul is not suggesting that the church displaces Israel as God’s people. Recall that Paul is writing at a time when the Jesus movement was understood and understood itself as existing within the larger tradition of Judaism. Paul’s argument is that Abraham is the father not merely of Israel but of many nations and of all who share his faith in Israel’s God through baptism into Jesus Christ.

Mark 8:31-38

This is the first instance in Mark’s gospel where Jesus speaks specifically to his disciples about his coming suffering, death and resurrection. This speech comes immediately following Peter’s declaration of faith in Jesus as Israel’s messiah. Peter is understandably confused and upset. The messiah is supposed to liberate Israel. How can his rejection, suffering and death accomplish anything along the lines of salvation? We might expect Peter to wonder a bit about Jesus’ resurrection and what that might mean, but it seems he cannot get past Jesus’ suffering and death. So Peter does what any good friend would do for a buddy who talks about being rejected, persecuted and dying. He gives him a pep talk! “Come off it Jesus! Don’t be such a Debbie Downer. They’ll love you in Jerusalem just like they do everywhere else!”

This pep talk earns Peter a rebuke-a harsh rebuke. To be sure, Peter was missing the whole point of Jesus’ mission and ministry. But was it really necessary to call him the devil? That seems a little over the top. Yet as we saw last week, Jesus was driven into the presence of Satan immediately following his baptism. There God declared Jesus to be God’s Son. Jesus, and by extension his church, is never in greater danger of Satanic influence than when Jesus’ identity and mission are misconstrued. While we cannot know what Peter had in mind when he declared Jesus to be God’s messiah, a couple of things are obvious. First, the cross had no place in Peter’s understanding of Jesus’ mission. Whatever Peter’s understanding of God’s Kingdom may have been, he was convinced it could be ushered in without the cross-the very argument advanced by Satan according to Matthew and Luke and implicitly in Mark as well.

Second, as will become clear from the story of the Transfiguration to follow, Jesus is more than Israel’s messiah. He is more than even Moses and Elijah. Jesus is God’s beloved Son. Peter should listen to him rather than insisting on advising him. At this point, Peter’s understanding is moribund, limited to what is humanly achievable. Whatever his notion of salvation may have been, it was too small. Satan knows too well that he cannot deter Jesus by tempting him with what is evil. So he tempts Jesus with something that is merely less than the highest good. Listen to Peter. Don’t do anything rash. Stay out of harm’s way. Dead men cannot preach, heal and cast out demons. Peter’s is the voice of reason, but as Martin Luther once said, reason can easily become the devil’s whore.

Ultimately, Peter is seeking to make an end run around the cross. That is why Jesus must make it clear that all who wish to follow him must embrace the cross. This is not an abstract metaphor. The cross was Rome’s ultimate instrument of terror. Execution by crucifixion conformed to a morbid ritual in which the condemned person was required to carry his/her own cross bar to the place of execution, which was always a public area. The condemned was then stripped naked and fastened to the cross by nails through the hands or wrists and through the feet or above the heels. Held immobile for every passersby to see, the crucified was unable to cope with heat, cold, insects or care for his bodily needs. Perker, Pierson, “Crucifixion,” The Interpreters Dictionary of the Bible, Vol. 1 (c. 1962 by Abingdon Press) p. 747. Crucifixions were common events throughout Galilee and so Jesus’ hearers knew he was not referring to an aching back, a nagging in-law or any of the other annoyances bandied about in common parlance as “my cross to bear.” As pointed out in a frequently quoted passage from the works of John Howard Yoder, “The cross of Calvary was … the political, legally to be expected result of a moral clash with the powers ruling [Jesus’] society.” Yoder, John Howard, The Politics of Jesus, (c. 1972 by Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.) p. 129.

In sum, God’s reign has come. It is present, not future tense. Nevertheless, the reign of God is being asserted in a world where other powers claim supremacy. Cultural norms, societal expectations and civil obligations make demands upon us that are contrary to the claim of Jesus, the shape of which is spelled out in the Sermon on the Mount and elsewhere. It is for this reason that loyalty to Jesus brings us into conflict with the world around us. In such a world, God’s reign necessarily takes the shape of the cross.

Transfigured to purgatory; A poem about Transfiguration; and the lessons for Sunday, February 11, 2018

See the source imageTRANSFIGURATION OF OUR LORD

2 Kings 2:1-12
Psalm 50:1-6
2 Corinthians 4:3-6
Mark 9:2-9

PRAYER OF THE DAY Almighty God, the resplendent light of your truth shines from the mountaintop into our hearts. Transfigure us by your beloved Son, and illumine the world with your image, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

As noted below in my remarks on the gospel for this Sunday, Rudolf Bultmann is convinced that the transfiguration story is an ancient resurrection account that Mark the Evangelist has worked into the center of his narrative. This placement was then followed by Matthew and Luke whose gospels rely upon Mark. So why would anyone other than Bible scholars care about any of this? What significance does this have for the faithful reader of the gospels? I believe that this is one of those rare instances where redaction analysis really matters. The Evangelist is not simply being sloppy here. S/he is deliberately introducing the only resurrection account we have in Mark’s gospel into the very midst of the story. In the Transfiguration, death is undone. The relentless march of time is ended. The line of demarcation between past and future evaporates into the midst and we stand in God’s eternal now. The figures of Moses and Elijah, separated by centuries, converse together with Jesus on the mountain top. Can you blame the three disciples for believing that the reign of God had arrived? That the resurrection had occurred? That nothing remained but to bask in the glory of God’s new creation?

But here’s the thing. The reign of God has not come in full. The will of God is not done on earth as in heaven. The resurrection of the dead has not occurred. That is why the disciples are told not to speak of what transpired until after Jesus’ suffering, death and resurrection-a reality about which they remain in a state of willful denial. Therein lies the problem. Neither the world nor the disciples are ready for the resurrection. They are not yet the kind of persons capable of living joyfully, faithfully and obediently under God’s gentle reign of peace. Resurrection is not good news if it means only that our present existence with all of its conflicts, prejudices, blood feuds, animosities and unresolved conflicts is projected into eternity. That sounds much more like a definition of hell!  If we ourselves are not fundamentally transformed, we can hardly expect to live in a world transfigured by God’s glory.

Though not Biblical in the strict sense, there is a certain logic behind the medieval doctrine of purgatory. The term is derived from the Latin verb, purgo, meaning literally “to cleanse.” I doubt that few of us would deny that a single lifetime is far too short to become a creature capable of living under God’s reign. If you have any doubts about that, ask yourself whether there is anyone you would not want to meet in the hereafter. If you can answer that inquiry with a confident “no,” you are either a bonafide saint or seriously deluded. If it is God’s will that none perish and that all come to repentance, then the “all” includes those with whom we are at enmity. We might rather have God cleanse the universe of people we hate; but God would purge us of hatred so that we can live peaceably with those we now count as enemies-however long that might take. This “purging,” however, is not to be found in some intermediate state between heaven and hell. It takes place here and now through the daily practice of confession and forgiveness. We are purged in that fiery furnace known as the church, where we must live together with people we wouldn’t necessary choose as our friends, people who rub us the wrong way, people we might not want in our midst-but people whom Jesus has called, and that because they can help us purge ourselves in ways we could never manage to do on our own.

Significantly, the voice from heaven directs the disciples away from the vision of resurrection and back to Jesus. “This,” says the voice, “is my beloved Son. Listen to him.” There is no short cut to the resurrection and eternal life. There is no bypassing the fiery ordeal of repentance; no alternate route avoiding the valley of the shadow of death. There is no way around purgatory, only through it. That is where Jesus led his disciples in the gospel and that is where he leads his church during the season of Lent. We summoned on Ash Wednesday to acknowledge what our death denying culture so adamantly refuses to accept: that we are dust and to dust we return. We are invited to journey with Jesus into Jerusalem to shouts of “Hosanna” that soon will turn to cries of “Crucify him!” We are asked to dine with Jesus at his last meal with his disciples-which will continue in a way too marvelous for us to comprehend. On Easter Sunday we will be drawn to the tomb as were the women-only to discover that our Lord is not there! This is our purging. This is our preparation for the reign of God: Listening to him revealed to us as God’s beloved Son.

Here’s a poem about the Transfiguration.

Transfiguration

The sky was dark and overcast the day
we began our ascent to the top of that mountain.
Cold mist soaked our garments from without
as did the sweat of our weary bodies from within.
Up and up we followed in His footsteps,
each of us wondering how He knew the way
and how He could see the path through the
impenetrable fog all around us on every side.
Our hearts pumped frantically, our lungs gasped at the thinning air,
our aching limbs longed to fall motionless to the ground.
And so they did at long last when finally we reached the summit.
Broken with fatigue we lay down on the grass,
heedless of the cold and wet, leaving Him to His meditations.

Of what we saw-or thought we saw-when we awoke
I still cannot find words enough to tell the half of it.
His face shown like the sun as he conversed with the ancient ones.
The cloud enveloped us and brought us to our knees
with the power of a mighty ocean wave.
But most terrible of all was that voice driving
like a nail into our very souls these words:
“This is my Son, my Beloved. Listen to him.”
Small wonder we fell to the earth and hid our faces.
When at last we found enough courage to open our eyes
the cloud was once again cold drizzle and fog,
the voice silent, the ancients gone
and only He remained to lead us back to the plane.

Anonymous

2 Kings 2:1-12

The life and ministry of Elijah and his successor, Elisha, must be understood against the backdrop of the times. Elijah’s ministry began during the reign of Ahab, a king over the Northern Kingdom of Israel. Ahab inherited the kingdom from his father, Omri, who seized the throne following a bloody civil war. Omri led Israel to national greatness, strengthening the nation through military and commercial treaties with the surrounding Phoenician kingdoms. He is also credited with establishing as his capital the city of Samaria. Like his father, Ahab was an ambitious monarch eager to expand the military and commercial strength of his kingdom at all costs. To that end, he continued the policies of his father, renewing Israel’s Phoenician treaties and solidifying them through marriage to Jezebel, daughter of Tyre’s King Ethbaal. Ahab appears to have been personally loyal to the God of Israel. The names of his three children, Ahaziah, Jehoram and Athaliah all derive from the root of the divine name, YAHWEH. Nevertheless, Ahab did not interfere with his wife’s vigorous implementation of Baal worship throughout Israel. It seems that Baal worship was becoming so pervasive that it was threatening to displace the worship of Israel’s God.

The prophet Elijah appears as if out of nowhere to challenge Ahab’s unfaithfulness. At first a solitary figure, it becomes evident toward the end of the narratives about him in the Book of II Kings that Elijah is to some degree associated with a guild of prophets known as “the sons of the prophets.” Vss. 3, 5 and 7. Little is known about this group, but it appears that they shared some sort of common life apart from the rest of Israelite society. Though colorful and dramatic, Elijah’s life comes to an end with his mission largely unfulfilled. At the time of his departure, the house of Omri still reigns through Ahab’s son Jehoram, Jezebel still wields considerable influence and the worship of Baal is in full swing. To Elisha, Elijah’s successor, will fall the task of completing what Elijah could only begin.

Our lesson begins with Elijah and Elisha following a path taking them to points pregnant with meaning. Bethel is the site of Jacob’s dream about the heavenly ladder and God’s conferring upon him the covenant promises given to his father Isaac and grandfather Abraham. Genesis 28:10-22. Jericho was the first city conquered by Joshua in the land of Canaan. Joshua 6:1-21. The crossing of the Jordan River (vs. 8) echoes both Israel’s crossing of the Red Sea under the leadership of Moses and her own crossing of the Jordan into the promised land with Joshua centuries before. Exodus 14Joshua 3:14-17. After the crossing of the Jordan, Elisha asks that he inherit a “double share” of Elijah’s spirit. Elisha is not seeking more spiritual power than Elijah. Rather, he is seeking the double portion of inheritance due a first-born son under Mosaic Law. See Deuteronomy 21:15-17. Elisha thus stands in the position of a first-born son among “the sons of the prophets.” He will inherit the position of prominence belonging to Elijah.

It is unclear whether Elisha held a specific office or title among the sons of the prophets. Obviously, he held an important leadership role, caring for a prophet’s widow (II Kings 4:1-7 ), directing the building of a common dwelling (II Kings 6:1-7) and presiding at a common meal II Kings 4:38-44. It is conceivable that the sons of the prophets came into royal favor with the overthrow of Omri’s line by Jehu, the man anointed by command of Elisha. II Kings 9. With such royal favor frequently comes royal cooption and corruption. Under the new regime, it is quite possible that the prophetic guild of Elijah and Elisha became the religious mouthpiece of the state. That would make Amos’ declaration that he is neither a prophet nor the son of a prophet altogether intelligible. Amos 7:14. Amos, who was highly critical of the monarchy in Northern Israel, was making it clear that he was not in any way associated with the official state prophets. Though certainly plausible, this conclusion is thin on evidence from the biblical texts and altogether lacking from any other literary or archeological source.

Perhaps the most profound words spoken in this reading come from the lips of Elisha as his master is being taken away from him. “My father, my father, the chariots of Israel and its horsemen!” vs. 12. The true might of Israel is not on the throne in Samaria or in its military might. The voice of prophecy is Israel’s chariots and horsemen. The Word of the Lord is its power. Once again, militarism is soundly rejected by the Hebrew Scriptural witness.

Psalm 50:1-6

This psalm summons us to the divine court where God is bringing a legal proceeding against his covenant people. Our lesson consists of the opening scene in which God calls the whole world as his witness. Vss. 1-6. Walter Brueggemann describes this section as “a stylized description of a theophany, a majestic overpowering coming of Yahweh in his royal splendor.” Bruggemann, Walter, The Message of the Psalms, Augsburg Old Testament Studies (c. 1984 Augsburg Publishing House) p. 89. In verses 5-6, we are alerted to the legal standards under which this trial is to be conducted and Israel judged. Terms such as “faithful ones,” “covenant” and “righteousness” make clear that the allegations to be asserted under the counts of God’s complaint are based on the Mosaic covenant. Ibid.

In the first count of God’s complaint (Vss. 7-15) God takes to task those who imagine that their covenant obligations are fulfilled merely by attending to the proper rituals. Sacrifices are not commanded because God needs them. It is absurd to imagine that God needs to be fed by human beings. “God is here disengaged from any necessity bound to Israel. Israel knows and relies on God’s abiding engagement with Israel. On Yahweh’s part, however, that engagement is one of free passion, not of necessity.” Ibid. 90. Sacrifices are commanded because human beings require intimacy with God and God’s people. They are to be offered with thanksgiving, not under the mistaken belief that they appease God’s anger or buy God’s favor.

In the second count (Vss. 16-21), God reproves all who learn by rote and recite God’s commandments but make not even the slightest pretext of obeying them. Such people divorce their worship from the rest of their lives. On Sunday they sing hymns to the Lord who preached the Sermon on the Mount. On Monday they report to work at a bank that practices predatory lending; bundles toxic loans into securities sold to retirement plans and practices illegal and oppressive foreclosure procedures. Such worshipers are Christian churches and organizations that publish preachy-screechy statements on social justice even as they argue in the Supreme Court that they ought to be free to discriminate against their employees by denying them health insurance. See Hosanna Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church & School v. EEOC, 132 S. Ct. 694, 181 L. Ed. 2d 650 (2012). They “hold[] the form of religion but deny[] the power of it.” II Timothy 3:5. These false worshipers imagine that God is like themselves. Vs. 21. They assume that God regards the Mosaic covenant obligations as lightly as do they. They are mistaken. God is serious in promising deliverance for his people who invoke the covenant by calling upon him. Vs. 15. But God’s faithfulness ought to evoke faithful obedience from Israel. God takes his demand for covenant obedience on Israel’s part as seriously as God takes his own covenant promise to save.

Finally, God declares that proper worship consists in sacrifice with a spirit of thanksgiving from those whose lives, not merely their words, are ordered by God’s commandments. Vss. 22-23. Some commentators believe that this psalm may have ancient roots in Israel’s covenant renewal ceremonies. Rogerson, J.W. and McKay, J.W., Psalms 1-50, The Cambridge Bible Commentary (c. 1977 Cambridge University Press) p. 236. Others classify the psalm as an enthronement hymn celebrating God’s kingly triumph over all the powers hostile to God’s reign. Anderson, Bernhard W., Out of the Depths: The Psalms Speak for Us Today, (c. 1983 by Bernhard W. Anderson, pub. by Westminster Press) p. 175. Either suggestion is plausible.

2 Corinthians 4:3-6

We are now jumping from Paul’s First Letter to the church in Corinth to his Second Letter. Paul’s relationship with the church at Corinth deteriorated significantly between the writing of I Corinthians and II Corinthians. It appears that there were some individuals or groups within the church at Corinth that were challenging Paul’s apostolic authority, undermining his leadership and questioning his fitness as a preacher. Following his first letter, Paul made what he describes as a “painful visit” to the church. II Corinthians 2:1. This visit did not accomplish whatever it was he had intended. Not wanting to make another such visit, Paul wrote a “severe letter” to the church in Corinth out of “much affliction and anguish of heart.” II Corinthians 2:4. Though we cannot be certain, many commentators believe that at least part of this “severe” letter is contained in II Corinthians 10-13. E.g., Godspeed, Edgar J., An Introduction to the New Testament, (c. 1937 by University of Chicago Press) pp. 61-62. Whatever the case may be, it is evident that Paul was concerned about the effect his letter would have upon the church and so sent his associate, Titus, to Corinth in order to deal with the fallout. (It is also possible that Paul sent the letter along with Titus). Paul became so preoccupied with the problems at Corinth and the potential impact of his letter that he cut short a preaching tour in Troas and traveled to Macedonia in search of Titus. There Paul finally caught up with his associate who brought him a very favorable report from Corinth. II Corinthians 7:5-13. Paul’s severe letter had evidently done its work. The congregation gave its full support to Paul. Paul’s opponents were disciplined by the congregation so severely that Paul had to write and urge the church to reach out to them with forgiveness and “reaffirm” their love for these errant members. II Corinthians 2:5-11. It is this third letter from Paul to Corinth from which our lesson comes.

The term, “Let light shine out of darkness” (Vs. 6) does not appear verbatim in the Hebrew Scriptures. Paul is likely alluding to the opening lines from the first creation account in Genesis. Genesis 1:3-4. Just as light, the very first element of creation, was spoken into existence by the word of God, so also the light of the gospel of Jesus Christ is a word from the mouth of God. It is from this word that Paul derives his apostolic authority. His preaching and the faith it kindles constitute a creative act of God. Balla, Peter, “2 Corinthians,” published in Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament edited by G.K. Beale and D.A. Carson (c. 2007 by Beale & Carson, pub. by Baker Academic) p. 763. It is also possible that Paul has in mind Isaiah 9:2 in which the prophet promises the ultimate liberation of the northern tribes of Israel living under the darkness of Assyrian domination. Reading further we discover that this liberation will be inaugurated through a messianic ruler from the line of David who will usher in a new age of everlasting righteousness, justice and peace. Isaiah 9:6-7. The “zeal of the Lord” will bring this about. Isaiah 9:7. Whether Paul was thinking of Genesis, Isaiah or both, he is making the point that his authoritative preaching is not really his own, but is God’s light shining through him. In the following verses Paul will go on to say that he and his associates are but “earthen vessels” containing this glorious gospel light. II Corinthians 4:7-12.

In this brief passage Paul reminds the church that its job is to reflect Jesus to the world just as his own job is to reflect Jesus to the church. Paul is well aware that, due to his own human limitations and shortcomings, that good news might be “veiled.” Yet strangely, it is precisely because God makes use of such imperfect and flawed people that the limitless grace and mercy of God are so clearly evident. It is through the inept efforts of the disciples to keep up with Jesus in Mark’s gospel and the fractious and dysfunctional existence of the church in Corinth that the Body of Jesus continues reaching out with healing and reconciliation to the world.

Mark 9:2-9

The transfiguration story in Mark is arguably the climactic center of the gospel. I say “arguably” because some commentators, perhaps most, would place the “Intermission” for Mark’s drama directly after Peter’s confession at the end of Chapter 8. But it seems to me that Peter’s incomplete understanding of Jesus’ true identity sets the stage for the drama presented in our lesson. The term “after six days” immediately raises the question, “six days from when?” Most likely, Mark means six days following Peter’s confession. I am convinced, however, that this time period serves a literary purpose. Chronology is a concern altogether absent elsewhere in the gospel. Six days was traditionally the period of time required for self-preparation and purification before a direct encounter with God. Nineham, D.E., Saint Mark, The Pelican New Testament Commentaries (c. 1963 by D.E. Nineham, pub. by Penguin Books, Ltd.) p. 234. The six days also could be an allusion to the theophany on Mt. Sinai with Moses. Exodus 24:15-18. It is possibly an echo of the “sabbath rest” declared in Genesis 2:1-3. In either case, the six day intro strongly suggests a lead up to some definitive revelation, work or appearance of God.

We are told that Jesus’ “garments became glistening, intensely white” possibly evoking Moses’ changed countenance after conversing with the Lord on Sinai (Exodus 34:29-35) or the Son of Man referenced in Daniel 7:13-14. In either case (or both), Mark means to let the reader know that Jesus is something more than the messiah Israel was expecting.

Peter blurts out, “Let us make three booths,” one for each of the distinguished personages. Mark informs us that this remark came out as something people say when they have no idea what to say but feel compelled to say something. Under those circumstances, I have no doubt that we have all said things that don’t make a lot of sense. That, however, has not stopped generations of exegetes from looking for some meaning Mark might have missed. The Greek term “skaynh” translated as “booth” in our English Bibles can mean anything from a temporary tent-like dwelling to a tabernacle or more or less permanent dwelling. Commentator Vincent Taylor believes that Peter’s intended meaning was more in line with the temporary booths made of interlacing branches at the Feast of Tabernacles. Leviticus 23:39-44. Taylor, Vincent, The Gospel According to St. Mark, Thornapple Commentaries (c. 1966 by Vincent Taylor, pub. by Baker Book House Co.) p. 391. Yet if it was Peter’s desire to prolong indefinitely this transcendent encounter, construction of temporary dwellings is hardly an effective means to that end. It is difficult to determine from this brief utterance exactly what Peter had in mind (if indeed he had anything in his mind other than stark terror).

The cloud again evokes the Exodus theophany. It is “par excellence the vehicle of God’s Shekinah and the medium in and through which he manifested himself” in the Hebrew Scriptures. Nineham, infra, p. 235. See Exodus 16:10Exodus 19:9-16Exodus 24:15-18 and Numbers 14:10. The voice from the cloud focuses the reader’s attention (and that of the disciples as well) on Jesus. “This is my Son”-the same word spoken to Jesus at his baptism (Mark 1:11) is repeated here with an emphatic, perhaps desperate command/plea: “Listen to him.” This is the whole point of the story. It reaffirms to some extent what has already been established in the account of Peter’s confession in Chapter 8. Jesus is not to be identified with John the Baptist, Elijah, Moses or any other prophet. He is uniquely God’s Son and the disciples are to listen to him. 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.) pp. 217-218.

Rudolf Bultmann is convinced that the transfiguration story is an ancient resurrection account, perhaps narrated in language closer to its original form in II Peter 1:16-18. Bultmann, Rudolf, History of the Synoptic Tradition, (c. 1963 by Basil Blackwell, pub. 1976 by Harper & Row) p. 259. If he is correct, then this is the only resurrection narrative we have in Mark (barring the post Mark 16:8 accretions). This leaves us to ponder what it means to experience the resurrection, not at the conclusion of Lent, but as we are about to descend into the darkness of the final conflict and Jesus’ crucifixion. What does it mean to celebrate Easter at sunset? It seems to me that by projecting the resurrection back into the life and ministry of Jesus, Mark blunts so much of the triumphalistic distortion afflicting our Easter proclamation. Resurrection is no longer the “happy ending,” or a bland metaphor affirming that “all’s well that ends well.” It is rather an affirmation that eternal life is found at the heart of Jesus’ life of preaching, healing and casting out demons, a life that was not extinguished by his crucifixion.

 

Evangelical Christian leaders in foreclosure; a poem by Stephen Dobyns; and the lessons for Sunday, January 28, 2018

See the source imageFOURTH SUNDAY AFTER EPIPHANY

Deuteronomy 18:15-20
Psalm 111
1 Corinthians 8:1-13
Mark 1:21-28

PRAYER OF THE DAY: Compassionate God, you gather the whole universe into your radiant presence and continually reveal your Son as our Savior. Bring wholeness to all that is broken and speak truth to us in our confusion, that all creation will see and know your Son, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.

“Not everyone who calls me ‘Lord, Lord,’ shall enter the kingdom of heaven.” Matthew 7:21.

Two weeks ago, we heard the voice of God witnessing to Jesus as God’s beloved son. In today’s gospel Jesus is acclaimed “the Holy one of God” by the most unholy of witnesses-a demon. Just as the devil can quote scripture, so the devil can make an orthodox confession of Jesus. I can only guess at what advantage the devil thought he might get from being given free reign to confess Jesus as Lord.  Clearly, however, Jesus wants no part of any such testimony, true as it surely is. He has learned through his temptation experience in the wilderness that the devil’s promises are empty and his seemingly good gifts always come with strings attached. In the short term, changing stones into bread to satisfy your hunger, grabbing hold of the levers of political power to accomplish worthwhile objectives and winning the applause of the crowd with death defying stunts might seem like a sure path to survival, recognition and popularity. But that path will not teach you reliance upon God’s promises or release the power of self-emptying love into the world or induce disciples to surrender their lives to the promise of God’s reign. So, too, letting the devil do Jesus’ PR work is not likely to further God’s reign of love.

Evangelical Christian leaders have been slow to heed this warning. I speak specifically about Liberty University President Jerry Falwell Jr., Bishop Harry Jackson, an African American pastor from Beltsville, Md., megachurch pastor Paula White, radio host James Dobson and, of course, Rev. Franklin Graham. These evangelical leaders have remained steadfast in their support of the president, notwithstanding his boasts of grabbing young girls by the genitals, his history of racial epitaphs and acts of discrimination, his ruthless cruelty toward refugees and immigrants, his pathological lying and his gross ignorance of the basic doctrinal tenants of the Christian faith. Indeed, Rev. Graham went so far as to call him God’s champion for American Christianity. Though surely not blind to what these folks term as Donald Trump’s “shortcomings,” their rationalization is that Mr. Trump 1) is not Hillary Clinton; 2) is anti-abortion; 3) is willing to discriminate against LGBTQ folks (or I should say, uphold the freedom of Christians to discriminate against them in the name of Jesus). After all, the enemy of my enemy is my friend, right?

Wrong. Common enemies do not good friends make. The ends do not justify the means; but the means always distort the most just of ends. Or, to put it in gospel language, the devil is a merciless creditor who always demands his due on every contract he makes. Payday on the Trump pact is arriving for the above Evangelical leaders. Amy Gannett, a young evangelical blogger, recently observed: “Over the last several months, I have lost respect for the Republican party, and I honestly thought that would be the biggest tragedy of this election. But the disappointing truth is this: I’m losing faith in Evangelicals. And this is frightening. I am an Evangelical. I hold to Evangelical theology. I have attended not one, but two Evangelical schools. But I fear that we’re going to lose an entire generation because of the actions, words, and teachings of some Evangelicals.” How Evangelicals are Losing an Entire Generation. Ms. Gannett goes on to say, “Yes, we value the rights of the unborn, but we want leaders that are pro-life in all areas of society. Millennials feel the daily pangs of racial tension, a deep desire for equality for all, and a propensity toward the social justice issues surrounding the refugee crisis.” She concludes, saying “Evangelical leaders [         ] are using their political and social weight on issues close to their generation, and are neglecting the moral imperatives to seek justice, peace, and equality for the Black community, the immigrant community, and the refugee community (and a slew of others). My generation will not identify with this. We cannot call a candidate “good,”[             ], who has made racist remarks. We will not call a candidate “good” who has demoralized and dehumanized women on national television. We will not buy into the hierarchy of [some] proposed morals over others. Because [some evangelical leaders] are making this hierarchy of morality intrinsically related to the Christian life and theology, we will not stand with them.” If evangelical leaders think that banging their Bibles and becoming ever more preachy screechy with their excoriation of science, racist xenophobia and homophobic vitriol is going to win over young, thoughtful and faithful evangelical Christians like Ms. Gannett to their blind adoration of Donald Trump and his inhuman agenda, they are dreaming-and not in a good way.

I suspect that in relatively short time (talking decades here, not generations), the old guard evangelicals will find themselves a sad little club of old, angry, white men. They will be left with nothing but their sick and twisted religion and nothing to do but shake their impotent fists at a world, a church and a God that have all moved on and left them behind. It’s a sorry little inheritance to be sure. But that’s always what you wind up with when you make deals with the devil.

Here is a poem by Stephen Dobyns reminding us how insubstantial our souls are, how deeply we are formed by the pacts we make and how easy it is to lose the thread that defines us.   

Over a Cup of Coffee

Over a cup of coffee or sitting on a park bench or
walking the dog, he would recall some incident
from his youth—nothing significant—climbing a tree
in his backyard, waiting in left field for a batter’s
swing, sitting in a parked car with a girl whose face
he no longer remembered, his hand on her breast
and his body electric; memories to look at with
curiosity, the harmless behavior of a stranger, with
nothing to regret or elicit particular joy. And
although he had no sense of being on a journey,
such memories made him realize how far he had
traveled, which, in turn, made him ask how he
would look back on the person he was now, this
person who seemed so substantial. These images, it
was like looking at a book of old photographs,
recognizing a forehead, the narrow chin, and
perhaps recalling the story of an older second
cousin, how he had left long ago to try his luck in
Argentina or Australia. And he saw that he was
becoming like such a person, that the day might
arrive when he would look back on his present self
as on a distant relative who had drifted off into
uncharted lands.

Source: Poetry (December 2001). Stephen Dobyns grew up in New Jersey, Michigan, Virginia and Pennsylvania. He attended Shimer College and Wayne State University and received his master’s degree from the University of Iowa. Dobyns was a reporter for the Detroit News and taught at Sarah Lawrence College, Warren Wilson College, the University of Iowa, Syracuse University, and Boston University. He has produced several books of poetry, some novels and published short stories. You can read more about Stephen Dobyns and sample more of his poetry at the Poetry Foundation website.

Deuteronomy 18:15-20

Deuteronomy is the fifth book of the “Pentateuch,” the first five books of the Bible traditionally attributed to Moses. It should be understood that even from this traditional perspective, authorship was not understood as it is today. Modern biblical research has led to a general consensus that the Pentateuch is the product of four sources and perhaps several editors. For a brief outline of the history for the Pentateuch’s composition, see my post for January 7th. For a more thorough discussion, see this article on the Documentary Hypothesis.

Sunday’s lesson deals with the nettlesome issue of prophetic authority plaguing nearly every religious movement. Who speaks for the Lord to the community of faith after that community’s founding prophet dies? That is the question addressed by our lesson from the Hebrew Scriptures. The Book of Deuteronomy constitutes Moses’ final address to Israel. He knows that he will not be with them as they enter into the Promised Land. Accordingly, Moses speaks “Torah” to the people. This “Torah,” so much more than is conveyed by the word “law” used to translate it in most English Bibles, will serve as the normative guide for Israel’s corporate existence in Canaan. As such, it is a sort of surrogate for Moses himself.

Yet no written scripture, however exhaustive and profound, can take the place of a spiritual leader. Circumstances will be different for Israel in Canaan than they were for her in Egypt and in her journey through the wilderness. Some of the dangers Moses can foresee and address. Most of them are not even imaginable. Such is also the case for the Christian community. Paul could never have foreseen, much less addressed, the important ethical issues Christians face today. You won’t find many references in your biblical concordance to human cloning, biological warfare, genetic engineering, in vitro fertilization, global warming or fracking. That isn’t to say that the scriptures cannot enlighten us on these matters. It is obvious, however, that we will need someone to interpret them. We will need people who understand fully how Moses, the prophets and the apostles thought about issues in their own time and who are capable of applying that wisdom to our thinking about the challenges we face today. In other words, we need prophets.

Moses was well aware of that need and he speaks to it in our lesson. He promises that God will raise up prophets like himself to speak the word of the Lord to Israel as she takes up her new life in Canaan. Vs. 15. That is a gracious word. God does not intend simply to leave Israel with a user manual for the new life God has given her. The scriptures are living documents. Not only were they inspired by the Holy Spirit, but their continued power for subsequent generations depends on that Spirit working in the hearts of all who preach and teach them. Thus, the well-loved Lutheran dictum “Sola Scriptura” cannot be taken to mean that the scriptures alone are sufficient to govern the church. From very early on, the church has formulated creeds to articulate the heart of the scriptural witness. We can see the seeds of such creedal authority in the scriptures themselves. For example, in I Timothy Paul remarks: “Great indeed, we confess, is the mystery of our religion: He was manifested in the flesh, vindicated in the Spirit, seen by angels, preached among the nations, believed on in the world, taken up in glory.” I Timothy 3:16.

Yet while creeds can keep our focus on what is central to the scriptural witness and help us avoid “wander[ing] away into vain discussion,” they cannot by themselves produce “love that issues from a pure heart and a good conscience and sincere faith.” I Timothy 1:3-7. For that, “teaching” and “prophetic utterance” are essential. I Timothy 4:14. Here I differ with a number of theologians who have said over the years that disciples of Jesus are a “people of the book.” That we clearly are not. We are a people of the resurrected Jesus. That is not to denigrate the scriptures. They constitute the normative witness to Jesus. All other witnesses, including the ecumenical creeds, stand under their judgment. Yet they point beyond themselves to the one we confess to be God’s only beloved Son incarnate, crucified and raised for the life of the world. Faith is not subscription to scriptural doctrines or principles. It is trust in a living person. The authority of the Bible is therefore inseparably linked to the living community of disciples through whom faith is mediated by teaching, preaching and the example of holy living.

In one sense, the prophetic task belongs to the whole community. Thus, we encourage all believers to share their faith in Jesus and to speak out on behalf of the poor, the weak and the vulnerable in public forums and to their elected representatives. We expect all believers to be involved in the ministry of teaching. A little appreciated fact about Luther’s Small Catechism is that it was written as a guide for parents to introduce their children to the Christian faith, not as a model curriculum for pastors to teach confirmation classes. Yet it seems inevitable that prophetic authority for the community must be invested in someone. I have gotten to know several groups within the Anabaptist and Pentecostal traditions that have strong anti-clerical streaks. They place a special emphasis on the priesthood of all believers. I have observed, however, that even within these groups there is usually one or more persons who stand out as authorities on matters of faith and life. Thus, even though they lack formal designation as authorities, they are recognized as authoritative nonetheless. As our gospel lesson demonstrates, authority can make itself felt without credentials.

Be all of this as it may, I believe that the church is best served when we are intentional about who we invest with prophetic authority. There is something to be said for standards, requirements and systems of accountability for the ministry of public preaching and the Lutheran confessional requirement that this ministry be legitimated by a “call” formally recognized in the church. Preaching is too important a task to be left in the hands of whoever shows up on Sunday and has the inclination to do it. Would you want a layperson with only a deep appreciation for medicine and a desire to try practicing surgery operating on your spine? How much less your soul!

Of course, neither individual zeal nor official recognition can guaranty that prophetic speech will not go off the rails. That is one of the concerns addressed in the verses following our lesson: How can we be sure the preacher is giving us the word of the Lord and not something else? How do you distinguish a true prophet from a false one? The only way to make this determination is to discern whether the prophet’s words prove true. Deuteronomy 18:21-22. If we understand prophecy to be no more than predicting the future, this advice is practically worthless. But of course, prophecy is much more than astrology. Prophesy is not principally foretelling the future, but forthtelling God’s word to our present circumstances. Prophets do not speak in a vacuum. They speak from the scriptural witness; their scriptural interpretations are normed by the creedal statements and, most specifically, by Jesus. For the church, Jesus is our way into the scriptures, the light by which we read the scriptures and the Spirit by which we interpret the scriptures. Prophesy is therefore not to be accepted blindly or uncritically. Paul encouraged his hearers to examine the scriptures in order to validate his preaching. Acts 17:11. John warns us to “test the spirits” in order to avoid giving heed to false prophets. I John 4:1. Genuine prophetic ministry thrives where there exists a healthy tension between the scriptures, the prophetic voice of public preaching and the critical discernment of the whole people of God.

Psalm 111

This psalm is an “acrostic” poem, meaning that each strophe begins with a new letter of the Hebrew alphabet in sequential order. Other psalms of this family are Psalm 119Psalm 9Psalm 10Psalm 25Psalm 34Psalm 37Psalm 112; and Psalm 145. It is possible that this psalm is related to Psalm 112, also an acrostic poem. Whereas the theme of Psalm 111 is the goodness and faithfulness of the Lord, Psalm 112 speaks of the blessedness of the person who fears and trusts in the Lord. Because the acrostic form is a relatively late development in Hebrew poetry, most scholars date this psalm during the period after the Babylonian Exile.

The psalm makes clear that the greatness of God is made known in God’s works. Though the Exodus, wilderness wanderings, conquest of Canaan and the return from exile are not specifically referenced, they were doubtlessly in the mind of the psalmist as s/he proclaimed the redemption of God’s people. Vs. 9. The giving of the law appears to be the paramount act of salvation in the psalmist’s mind. The statutes of the Lord are “trustworthy…established forever and ever. Vs. 8. It was, after all, the Torah that preserved Israel’s identity throughout the long years of Babylonian captivity and kept alive the hope that finally inspired her return and the rebuilding of Jerusalem and the temple.

The most memorable and familiar verse is the final one: “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.”  Vs. 10. Fear of God is a distasteful notion to us moderns who prefer a deity similar to the white, upper middle class, slightly left of center dad of the Ward Clever variety. But the Bible testifies to a God who is sometimes scary and not always very nice (though the lectionary folks do their best to shave off his rough edges with their incessant editing). Fear is usually the first emotion biblical characters express when face to face with God or one of God’s angelic messengers. So anyone who has no apprehension about encountering God is probably downright foolhardy.

Frankly, I think that if we feared God more, we might fear a lot of other things less. Worshipers of Israel’s God should know that instead of fretting over what the deficit will do to us if we commit ourselves to providing everyone with sufficient housing, food and medical care, we ought to be concerned about what God might do to us if we don’t. If the good people on Capitol Hill believed that on the last day God will confront all nations and peoples through the eyes of everyone they could have clothed, fed, befriended and cared for, I think the log jam over social legislation would disappear in a New York minute. The fact that most of these folks self-identify as Christians shows just how poor a job their churches have done teaching them what they should and should not fear. Healthy fear understands that the decisions we make matter-eternally so.

1 Corinthians 8:1-13

This section of Paul’s letter is not particularly “relevant” in terms of its subject matter. When I purchase meat, I don’t worry much about whether it was used in some pagan sacrificial rite. I am more concerned about the conditions under which the animal in question was raised, what it was fed and injected with, how it was butchered and processed. Sometimes I wonder whether I should be eating meat in the first place. These, however, are entirely different issues than those with which Paul is concerned. The question of consuming pagan sacrificial meat arises out of the larger context of Corinthian culture in which Paul’s congregation was situated:

“A glance at the plan of the excavated forum of Roman Corinth detects the numerous temples and shrines in it dedicated to various gods that non-Christian Corinthians reverenced. Civic and social life in such a city would have meant an obligation to join in festivals, celebrations, and public ceremonies on occasions when religion and politics were not clearly demarcated; there were also many guilds of tradesmen and other voluntary associations in which specific gods were honored with banquets and sacrificial meals. Feasts in honor of various deities were celebrated regularly in numerous temples, when food (cereals, cheese, honey) were offered and animals (goats, cows, bulls, horses) were sacrificed to them, according to the manuals of the pontifices. The meat of animals so slaughtered, when not fully consumed in sacrifice, was often eaten by the offerers and attending temple servants. The latter sold at times the surplus meat on the markets.” Fitzmyer, Joseph A., First Corinthians, The Anchor Yale Bible, Vol. 32 (c. 2008 by Yale University) p. 331.

In this cultural setting, a disciple’s faithfulness to Jesus as the Son of Israel’s God cut across loyalties of professional, social and legal obligations inherent in daily life. Your clients and business associates might well begin to wonder why you are routinely turning down their dinner invitations. Your community might question your patriotism when you avoid civil ceremonies that invariably involve pagan sacrificial rites. Your old friends might be deeply hurt when you refuse to accept gifts of food from sacrificial feasts. Furthermore, how can you be sure that the meat you buy in the market place has not been used in one of these feasts?

Some in the Corinthian church took a pragmatic view. They knew that there is no God but one. They knew that food is derived from God’s good creation and does not become any less good simply because some pagan priest mumbles a few words of devotion to a god that doesn’t even exist. So why not eat and enjoy? Whatever the pagans may think, we know that meat is meat and that it is meant to be enjoyed as God’s good gift.

Paul seems to agree with these “knowledgeable” folks in principle. But there is more to all of this than “knowledge.” For most people, the pagan rituals pervading social life in Corinth were pregnant with meaning and significance. It was practically impossible for them to separate the eating of sacrificial meat from participation in the sacrificial rite. They could no more eat sacrificial meat without being drawn into its religious significance than can an alcoholic indulge in “just one little drink.”

“So what?” say those “with knowledge.” “Why should the scruples of other people stand in the way of what we do with a clear conscience?” “Because,” Paul replies, “this ‘knowledge’ of yours is not the guiding principle.” As Paul pointed out to us last week, just because we are free to do something does not mean that we ought to do it. Here the guiding principle is not ‘knowledge’ but love. Vs. 3. It is true that in Christ we are free to enjoy the good gifts of God’s creation without worrying about all the other so-called ‘gods’ that pagans believe in. Nevertheless, we are obligated as members of Christ’s church to place the welfare of our sisters and brothers above our own desires. Everything a believer does must be done with the well-being of the whole church and all of its members in mind. Thus, although Paul shares the “knowledge” of his critics and the freedom they prize so highly, he will not exercise this freedom in any way that undermines the faith of any member of the church. If that means giving up meat altogether, so be it. Vs. 13.

Again, this issue is obviously a non-issue for us 21st Century believers. But Paul’s approach to it is still as timely as ever. A good dose of Paul’s advice would go a long way toward easing the tension that comes with changes in liturgy, remodeling of sacred space and discussion of controversial issues in the church. A lot of us feel that change comes far too slowly in the church. Many of us get frustrated with constant resistance to anything new. We are tempted to resort to the ways of the world in dealing with such resistance. We build alliances, stack committees, resort to political power, appeal to legal/constitutional provisions and settle matters by means of majority vote. All of that is a lot easier than the slow, cumbersome and painful work of building consensus. Yet consensus is the way of the cross and the only way to health for the whole Body of Christ.

Mark 1:21-28

Immediately following his call to the four fishermen, Jesus enters Capernaum and begins teaching in the synagogue there. Capernaum was a fishing village located on the northern shore of the Sea of Galilee about two miles from the entrance of the Jordan River. Though scholarly opinion is not entirely unanimous, most commentators believe the precise location to be at the site of the ruins of a town that came to be known by the Arabic name, Tell Hum. Taylor, Vincent, The Gospel According to St. Mark, (2nd Ed.), Thornapple Commentaries, (c. 1966 by Vincent Taylor, pub. Baker House Co.) p. 171. During the early part of the 1stCentury C.E. the town had a population of about fifteen hundred. Archaeological excavations have revealed two ancient synagogues built one over the other. A church near Capernaum is said to be the home of the Apostle Peter.

Synagogue worship consisted of prayers, benedictions, readings from the law and the prophets with translations from Hebrew into Aramaic, the language of the people. Expositions of the readings were conducted by the scribes who were the official interpreters of Torah. Hooker, Morna D., The Gospel According to Saint Mark, Black’s New Testament Commentaries (c. 1991 by Morna D. Hooker, pub. A&C Black (Publishers) Limited) p. 63. Most scribes belonged to the party of the Pharisees, though some were associated with the Sadducees. Ibid. In either case, these scribes would have grounded their teachings upon citations to Torah. It appears that Jesus speaks in the voice of prophesy without citation to any scriptural authority. His is a “new” teaching, not simply a recasting of the old. The people are therefore “astounded” because Jesus speaks “with authority” unlike the scribes. Vs. 22.

Somehow, a man with an unclean spirit appears among the worshipers. This “unholy spirit,” is the one and only one who recognizes Jesus as the “holy” one of God. The crowds don’t know quite what to make of this astonishing teacher. The disciples have not weighed in yet either. Of course, we have known from Mark 1:1 that Jesus is the messiah and the Son of God. Jesus knows this because God has called him the beloved Son at his baptism. Mark 1:11. As the story continues, however, we will discover that we do not know what we think we know. Jesus will turn out to be a very different sort of messiah than Israel was expecting and the Son of a very different sort of God than the one we think we know.

The demon asks “What do you have to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us?” Vs. 24. The former phrase might better be translated “What do we have in common?” or “Why are you interfering with us?” or simply “Mind your own business!” Cranfield, C.E.B., The Gospel According to St. Mark, The Cambridge Greek Testament Commentary (c. 1959 Cambridge University Press), p. 75. The demon’s use of the first person plural “us” suggests that it is speaking for demons as a class. Vs. 24. The demons know that Jesus will be their undoing. Their invocation of Jesus’ name is a vain effort to gain control over him. Ibid. 77. The common belief was that learning the name of a deity conferred a certain degree of power over that deity. Ibid. This demonic effort at getting a leg up on Jesus fails. Even in the mouth of a demoniac, the name of Jesus glorifies Jesus. Jesus silences the demon’s witness and casts it out. Vs. 25. This mighty act of power over the demonic further demonstrates Jesus’ authority which goes beyond mere speech. His authority flows as much through what he does as what he says. Jesus’ teaching is indeed both new and authoritative. Vs. 27.

This story emphasizes the radical “newness” of God’s reign pressing in upon the old order. The demonic opposition is a harbinger of the confrontation to come between Jesus and the powers that be. The cross and resurrection are foreshadowed in each episode of Mark’s gospel. Even as Jesus is gradually revealed, he is increasingly concealed as everything we think we know about him proves inadequate, incomplete or just plain wrong.

 

Rethinking beauty; a poem by Carolyn Kizer; and the lessons for Sunday, December 31, 2017

See the source imageFIRST SUNDAY OF CHRISTMAS

Isaiah 61:10—62:3
Psalm 148
Galatians 4:4-7
Luke 2:22-40

PRAYER OF THE DAY: Almighty God, you wonderfully created the dignity of human nature and yet more wonderfully restored it. In your mercy, let us share the divine life of the one who came to share our humanity, Jesus Christ, your Son, our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

So you are no longer a slave but a child, and if a child then also an heir, through God. Galatians 4:7.

Three leaders of the Miss America Organization resigned on the Saturday before Christmas, two days after a report revealed purported e-mails from them and other employees disparaging Pageant contestants. Following the report, dozens of former Miss America title holders from as far back as the 1940s issued a joint call for the resignation of the organization’s leadership. “As dedicated members of communities, businesses and families, and ambassadors for the Miss America program across the country, we stand firmly against harassment, bullying and shaming — especially of women — through the use of derogatory terms meant to belittle and demean,” the statement said.

Both the statement and the subsequent string of resignations are welcome developments. The “Me too” movement denouncing sexual assault and harassment in the wake of sexual misconduct allegations against film producer and executive Harvey Weinstein has led to a much needed examination of systemic misogyny and sexism in the culture of entertainment, politics and the workplace generally. It is good to see that many of the worst bullies and predators in our midst are finally being held accountable for their crimes and misconduct. Nevertheless, the actions of these individuals are symptomatic of a cultural disease that I believe is exemplified in the Miss America Pageant itself.

The Pageant originated in 1921 as a “bathing beauty revue.” As such, it was geared toward judging women on their appearance and sexual appeal. In more recent years, the Pageant has expanded the scope of the contest to include character, intellect, accomplishments and community service as factors in evaluating contestants. Nonetheless, physical attractiveness remains a dominant feature of the Pageant and that raises many troubling issues. Female beauty and sex appeal, we must not forget, are defined by men in a culture that continues to be dominated by men. Despite our general acknowledgement of gender equality in principle, inequality is still very much the reality in many dimensions of our common life. That is hardly surprising. Less than a century ago, women were denied the opportunity to vote or hold political office in this country. In the world of my childhood, no one would have considered seriously the notion that a woman could be president of the United States. Women physicians were a rarity. The church in which I grew up taught that the ministry of word and sacrament must be reserved exclusively for men. The subordination of women to men was as natural and seemingly unchangeable as gravity.

Some of the old rules have changed, but too many attitudes unfortunately have not. After all, we elected a president who routinely calls women he doesn’t like “dogs,” “pigs” “fat” and other names I would rather not print. One of our two major political parties poured money into a herculean effort to elect to the highest legislative body in our land a man who routinely preyed on teenage girls. Women, their rights, freedoms and security are still not a high priority for a huge section of our population. In a society where women are secondary beings who exist for the benefit of men and live to support them in the “real world” of work, standards for judging their “beauty” as well as their character are invariably measured in terms of their usefulness and desirability to men. A “good woman” is a good wife and mother, someone who can satisfy the needs and wants of a man. That is the fatal flaw in the Miss America Pageant and it should not surprise us overly much to learn that the men who have dominated this event exemplify our worst cultural tendencies to objectify women.

The consequences of this objectification go far beyond the bullying and harassment of Pageant contestants. The violence done to girls and women by our cultural images of female beauty (often exaggerated to inhuman proportions with the help of airbrushing and other photogenic techniques) is incalculable. According to the Center for Change, an organization that treats eating disorders, 86% of all American women are dissatisfied with their bodies to some degree:

“Women and adolescent girls regard size, much like weight, as a definitive element of their identity. Some girls assume there is something wrong with their bodies when they cannot fit consistently into some “standard” size; others will reject a pair of jeans simply because they won’t wear a particular size. The majority of girls step on the scale to determine their self-worth; if they have lost weight, then it is a good day and they can briefly feel “okay” about themselves. If the number on the scale has increased ever so slightly, then the day is ruined and they feel worthless.” Battling our Bodies: Understanding and Overcoming Negative Body Images, Nicole Hawkins, PhD., Website for Center for Change.

These feelings of worthlessness and self-hatred often lead to self-destructive behavior, particularly among teenage girls, such as anorexia, bulimia and self-cutting. As important as it is to hold accountable men who bully, harass and sexually abuse women and girls, it is just as important that entertainment organizations, glamour publications and fashion industries be called out for shamelessly promoting ideals of female beauty based on narrowly defined and largely unattainable standards grounded more in male sexual fantasies than reality. A kinder, gentler Miss America Pageant is not the answer. Nothing short of totally dismantling the Pageant and all other societal structures that reflect and promote the false values of male privilege and female beauty will do.

In our second lesson for this Sunday, Saint Paul reminds us that we are no longer to regard ourselves as “slaves,” but as free children. Slavery was accepted as a fact of life in Paul’s world-just as subordination of women to men was uncritically accepted in my childhood years. The world of the First Century was both hierarchical and patriarchal. At the top of the pyramid stood the emperor, below him the aristocracy, then male Roman citizens, and after that, male Roman subjects. Women, slaves and aliens were at the bottom of the heap. They were considered non-persons for all practical purposes. Paul stands this pyramid on its head. Unlike the emperor, God is not a tyrant ruling over descending classes of slaves. God is a parent whose reign is for the benefit of “the least” among us.

All of this has ramifications for how we relate to one another. If we are all equally God’s children, then we are all equally sisters and brothers. Paul makes the startling declaration that in Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female.” Galatians 3:28. This is not to say that we do not retain our sexual, racial or cultural identity. Nor does it mean that the systemic injustice subordinating some to others magically disappears. It does mean, however, that within the Body of Christ there can be no claim of authority or exercise of power based on these distinctions. It also means that disciples of Jesus are called to unmask the oppressive systems of hierarchy and patriarchy for what they are-bondage to sin and obstructions to God’s gentle reign of justice and peace. We are called to be, in the words of Simeon in our gospel lesson, “a light for revelation to the nations.” Luke 2:32.

Poetry is one of the cracks through which voices too long suppressed, the voices of women, people of color, sexual minorities and the marginalized break through. One such voice is that of Carolyn Kizer, part one of whose poem appears below:

Pro Femina

ONE

From Sappho to myself, consider the fate of women.
How unwomanly to discuss it! Like a noose or an albatross necktie
The clinical sobriquet hangs us: codpiece coveters.
Never mind these epithets; I myself have collected some honeys.
Juvenal set us apart in denouncing our vices
Which had grown, in part, from having been set apart:
Women abused their spouses, cuckolded them, even plotted
To poison them. Sensing, behind the violence of his manner—
“Think I’m crazy or drunk?”—his emotional stake in us,
As we forgive Strindberg and Nietzsche, we forgive all those
Who cannot forget us. We are hyenas. Yes, we admit it.

While men have politely debated free will, we have howled for it,
Howl still, pacing the centuries, tragedy heroines.
Some who sat quietly in the corner with their embroidery
Were Defarges, stabbing the wool with the names of their ancient
Oppressors, who ruled by the divine right of the male—
I’m impatient of interruptions! I’m aware there were millions
Of mutes for every Saint Joan or sainted Jane Austen,
Who, vague-eyed and acquiescent, worshiped God as a man.
I’m not concerned with those cabbageheads, not truly feminine
But neutered by labor. I mean real women, like you and like me.

Freed in fact, not in custom, lifted from furrow and scullery,
Not obliged, now, to be the pot for the annual chicken,
Have we begun to arrive in time? With our well-known
Respect for life because it hurts so much to come out with it;
Disdainful of “sovereignty,” “national honor;” and other abstractions;
We can say, like the ancient Chinese to successive waves of invaders,
“Relax, and let us absorb you. You can learn temperance
In a more temperate climate.” Give us just a few decades
Of grace, to encourage the fine art of acquiescence
And we might save the race. Meanwhile, observe our creative chaos,
Flux, efflorescence—whatever you care to call it!

Source: Carolyn Kizer, “Pro Femina,” Cool, Calm, and Collected: Poems 1960-2000, (c. 2001 by Carolyn Kizer. pub. by Copper Canyon Press) Carolyn Kizer (1925-2014) was born in Spokane, Washington. Kizer’s work is known for its intellectual rigor, formal mastery, and willingness to engage with thorny social realities and political issues. She earned a BA from Sarah Lawrence College in 1945 and did graduate work at both Columbia University and the University of Washington. During the mid-1950s, she studied poetry at the University of Washington. Kizer cofounded the journal Poetry Northwest, editing it from inception in 1959 until 1965. You can read the rest of this and other poems of Carolyn Kizer on the Poetry Foundation website.

Isaiah 61:10—62:3

The text comes to us from what scholars typically call “Trito-Isaiah” or Third Isaiah constituting chapters 56-66 in the Book of Isaiah. This section of oracles is principally the work of a prophet who ministered after the return of the Jewish exiles from Babylon, but before reconstruction of the temple in Jerusalem. In terms of dating, this time period runs from 530 B.C.E. to 510 B.C.E. Our particular lesson is a continuation of the “core” section of Third Isaiah, the beginning of which we saw in our lesson for the Third Sunday of Advent. See my post for December 17, 2017 for background information.

Having just delivered an oracle of salvation in the voice of the Lord (vss. 8-9), the prophet now breaks into a psalm of praise in his own voice. S/he declares that God has “clothed” him or her with “salvation” and “righteousness.” Vs. 61:10. To Lutherans like me, this language suggests the righteousness and salvation won for us through Jesus’ innocent suffering and death, i.e., vicarious satisfaction, substitutionary atonement, etc. But the theology of substitutionary atonement is not a good fit for this oracle (nor is it a good fit for any scriptural text, but that is a topic for another day). Here God’s salvation refers specifically to God’s gracious act of restoring the exiles to their homeland and God’s promise to exalt Israel among the nations. Because the proclamation of God’s word and the fulfilment of that word are viewed by the prophet as a single continuous act, the prophet bearing the word is clothed with the salvation and righteousness the word is destined to bring about. It is the prophet’s identification with God’s word, his or her soul’s exalting in God that clothes him or her in righteousness and salvation. Vs. 61:10. Of course, it is not only the prophet who will be so clothed. “Righteousness and praise” will spring forth before “all the nations.” Vs. 61:11. As surely as the earth brings forth vegetation, so will the word of God the prophet proclaims bring forth righteousness that will embrace the world and incite praise. Vs. 61: 11.

“For Zion’s sake I will not keep silent…” Vs. 62:1. Who is speaking here? Is this a continuation of the prophet’s discourse? Or are we now hearing the voice of the Lord? Does it matter? Most commentators believe that the words in chapter 62 are spoken in the voice of the prophet. Westermann, Claus, Isaiah 40-66, The Old Testament Library (c. 1969 by SCM Press Ltd) p. 374 citing Voltz, P., Iesaja, Leipzig, 1932. However that might be, I agree with Westermann that this sentence must be understood as a reply to the classical Hebrew lament, “How Long?” best illustrated throughout Psalm 13. “How long wilt thou forget me?” “How long wilt thou hide thyself from me?” “How long must I bear pain in my soul?” “How long shall the enemy be exalted over me?” The prophet’s/God’s response is “not much longer.”

It is important that the nations see Israel’s vindication. Vs. 62:2. The rebirth of a righteous people exalted by God makes known to the world the heart and gracious intent of God for all peoples. In much the same way, the resurrection of Jesus vindicates the community called church shaped by the Sermon on the Mount and suffering as a consequence of so living. It is not the great empires that “fret[] and strut[]” their hour upon the stage and are heard from no more that reflect God’s glory and implement God’s design. It is the people of the covenant living faithfully under the gracious reign of their God who embody God’s future for all humankind. Life within the covenant is God’s alternative way of being human.

“You shall be called by a new name, which the Lord your God will give you.” Vs. 62:2. A new name signifies a change in status. God changes Abram’s name (meaning exalted father) to Abraham (father of nations or peoples). Genesis 17:5. Jacob is re-named Israel. Genesis 32:28. The names “Forsaken” and “desolate,” often given to Israel by the prophets in their declarations of judgment, will no longer apply. Instead, the people will be called “My Delight is in her” and “Married” (as opposed to divorced or abandoned). Vs. 4 (not in our reading).

“You shall be a crown of beauty in the hand of the Lord, and a royal diadem in the hand of your God.” Vs. 3. Note well that the symbol of God’s sovereignty is a people without an army and without any sovereign status. God exercises God’s power through God’s covenant relationship with Israel. Divine sovereignty is exercised by the power of example rather than by an example of power. The prophet therefore calls into question the church’s Constantinian assumptions about the necessity of state sanctioned violence to establish and maintain order. More specifically for us Lutherans, the prophet puts the lie to our understanding of the state as God’s instrument of civil peace enabling the church to undertake its spiritual mission. As I have said many times before, pacifism is not one of many biblical themes. It is the biblical theme that finds its ultimate expression in the cross.

Psalm 148

This psalm is one of a group (Psalms 146-150) that begins and ends with the expression of praise, “hallelujah” or “Praise YAHWEH.” It is beautifully structured. The injunctions to praise begin with the heavens, the angels, the sun, moon and starts descending to the earth and its creatures. The forces of nature, geographical features (mountains and hills) and plant life all are called to join in the choir of praise to God. All people from mighty kings, to slave girls to small children are drawn into this cosmic hymn of praise to the Creator. Finally, the call to praise is directed to “the people of Israel who are near to him.” Vs. 14. The perfect symmetry of this psalm is further illustrated by its final focus on this one particular people who, though at the narrowest end of the spectrum, are nonetheless “near” to the almighty Creator God.

Vs. 1 “Praise the Lord!” or “Halleluiah” A refrain that appears again and again throughout the psalm. The word “Yah” is a Hebrew short form for the name “Yahweh.” “Hallel” is the word for praise or singing.

Vs. 2 “all his angels” or “Kol Melachw” in Hebrew literally translated means “all his messengers.” “All his hosts” or “Cal Zaboth” likely refers to angelic beings. The similar term, “Yahweh Zaboth,” is common throughout the Old Testament and is often translated “Lord of Hosts.” It can also be translated “Lord of Armies” or “Lord of the heavenly beings.”

Vs. 3 “Cal Cochav Or” or “all you points of light.” The stars are called to give praise to God as are the sun and moon. This is reminiscent of a passage in the book of Job: “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding. Who determined its measurements—surely you know! Or who stretched the line upon it? On what were its bases sunk, or who laid its cornerstone when the morning stars sang together and all the heavenly beings shouted for joy?” Job 38:4-7.

Vs. 4 “You waters that are above the heavens.” Here we see a reference to ancient cosmology-the understanding of the earth as subsisting inside of a great bubble with the waters above held back by the sky and those beneath confined to the sea bed. Though perhaps not entirely consistent with our 21st Century understanding of the cosmos, it nevertheless displays a profound recognition that our existence is precarious and preserved only by the creative Word of the Lord holding all of the destructive forces of nature in check.

“He commanded and they were created.” Vs. 5. See Genesis 1 in which the universe is called into being by the command, “Let there be!” In verse 6 the psalmist declares that God “established them forever and ever; he fixed their bounds which cannot be passed.” There is an echo here of Yahweh’s promise to Noah: “Then Noah built an altar to the LORD, and took of every clean animal and of every clean bird, and offered burnt-offerings on the altar. And when the LORD smelt the pleasing odor, the LORD said in his heart, ‘I will never again curse the ground because of humankind, for the inclination of the human heart is evil from youth; nor will I ever again destroy every living creature as I have done. As long as the earth endures, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night, shall not cease.’” Genesis 8: 20-22.

“Ye sea monsters and all deeps” Vs. 7. In Canaanite mythology, the sea monster Tiamat was an evil symbol of chaos that reigned before creation. We can hear an echo of that in Genesis 1:2 where the pre-creation state of things is referred to as “Tohu Vabohu” or “without form and void.” In the Canaanite creation myth, Tiamat is defeated in a great battle with the sky god Maraduk. There is no “struggle” in the creation story, however. When God speaks, the waters withdraw and order is introduced into the universe. Fire, hail, snow and ice-all potentially destructive forces-were very much feared in a culture of subsistence farmers. Vs. 8. Yet even these powers serve the will of God. In verses 9-10 we are reminded of the creation account in Genesis chapter 1 where God creates each species according to its kind, including the “creeping things.”

In verses 11-12 “kings and princes of all the earth” give praise to God. This is reminiscent of the universal appeal found in Second Isaiah: “Turn to me and be saved, all the ends of the earth! For I am God, and there is no other. By myself I have sworn, from my mouth has gone forth in righteousness a word that shall not return: ‘To me every knee shall bow every tongue shall swear.’” Isaiah 45:22-23.

“He has raised up a horn for his people, praise for all his faithful, for the people of Israel who are close to him.” Vss. 13-14. The psalm comes to a climax with praise to God for what he has done for Israel. This is quite by design. Though Israel surely recognized her God as Lord of Creation, God’s saving power and loving kindness are demonstrated not chiefly in the realm of nature, but in the realm of history. It was in the Exodus that God showed Himself as the God of mercy who glories in raising up the slave and putting down the mighty. It is through God’s faithfulness to his covenant with Israel that God makes himself known as the God who keeps promises. So also in the New Testament God demonstrates that God is not merely “as good as His Word,” but that God in fact is God’s Word. See John 1:1-18.

Galatians 4:4-7

For background information on Paul’s Letter to the Galatians, see Summary Article by James Boyce, Professor of New Testament and Greek at Luther Seminary, St. Paul, MN on enterthebible.org. Our lesson is a summarization of the main point Paul is making in this letter. Our salvation is relational. That is to say, we are redeemed not by adherence to the letter of the law, but through trusting Jesus, God’s Son through whom we have been adopted as God’s children. Paul contrasts the master/slave relationship governed by law, threat and the fear of punishment with the parent/child relationship that is grounded in parental love inspiring trust on the part of the child.

It is important to understand that Paul is not antinomian or hostile to Torah. The relationship between parent and child is not without boundaries, rules and expectations. The difference is that, as between parent and child, the rules serve the relationship. The relationship is not defined by the rules. That is enormously important because a lot of religion these days, much of it going under the name of Christianity, is more about rules than it is about our relationship with Jesus. For too many people, the Bible is essentially a rule book. The problem with that approach lies with the Bible itself. Its rules are frequently contradictory and always contextual. Nobody keeps all the rules in the Bible. So which ones do we keep? If you are going to raise up one passage out of Leviticus to condemn male homosexual conduct as “abominable,” don’t you have to say the same for people who eat lobster, also an abomination? See Leviticus 11:9-12Leviticus 18:22. Which abominations are more abominable and why? As long as you maintain that the Bible is a rule book, you will never get past that argument.

Jesus makes clear that, while there are rules in the Bible and that these rules must be taken seriously, not all rules are equal. When asked which commandment was the greatest, Jesus replied that there are two that tower over all the rest: Love God and love your neighbor as yourself. Mark 12:28-34. If you interpret the Torah in any manner such that it detracts from love for God and compassion for your neighbor or if you construe the scriptures in ways that drive people away from God’s loving embrace, you have got it wrong. That is why I say repeatedly (and most often in vain) to people who insist that biblical provisions preclude full inclusion of GLBT persons, “Look, you can scream ‘Bible, Bible, Bible’ in my face until hell freezes over and I’m going to keep replying “Jesus, Jesus, Jesus.” Either you use (abuse) people to serve the interests of the particular law that suits your fancy, or you put the whole law to work in the service of God and your neighbor. That is the very issue Paul addresses in his Letter to the Galatians.

Luke 2:22-40

Luke seems to be conflating a couple of Hebrew Scriptural traditions in this lesson. The first is the rite of purification for Mary following the birth of Jesus. This requirement is spelled out in Leviticus 12. The second is the required ransom of the firstborn. Exodus 13:1-16Exodus 34:18-20Numbers 18:16. The offering of “a pair of turtle doves, or two young pigeons” clearly pertains to the purification. No mention is made of the five shekel fee required to redeem a first born male child. It appears, though, that Luke is far more concerned with getting Jesus into the Temple than he is with explaining whatever ritual purpose might have brought him there. Luke’s purpose appears to be that of echoing the presentation of Samuel “to the house of the Lord at Shiloh.” I Samuel 1:24. 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. 450-451. Just as the shrine at Shiloh was the backdrop for Samuel’s consecration, so the temple serves as the staging for Jesus’ initiation into God’s service.

Luke’s gospel both begins and ends in the temple. The story opens with Zechariah’s service in the temple and ends with the disciples returning to the temple “blessing God” following Jesus’ ascension. Luke 1:5-25Luke 24:50-53. When Jesus goes MIA during a family pilgrimage to Jerusalem, he is found in the temple “about his Father’s business.” Luke 2:41-51. It may be that in drawing the implied parallel between the sanctuary at Shiloh (destroyed by the Philistines) and the temple in Jerusalem, Luke is foreshadowing the temple’s destruction by the Romans in 70 C.E. I must add that I have not found any commentary to support me on this. I may well be reading too much into the text. Nonetheless, I cannot help but believe that Luke has some literary/theological purpose in mind with all of his temple episodes.

Significantly, the main actors in this temple drama are not the priests responsible for performing the rites that allegedly drew the family to the temple in the first place. It is the prophetic voice of old Simeon that articulates Jesus’ calling. Vss. 25-35. Through revelation of some kind, Simeon has learned that he will see the Lord’s messiah before his dying day. Vs. 26. The Holy Spirit leads Simeon to the temple where his prophetic vision is fulfilled. Now he can die in peace.

Simeon’s song of blessing anchors Jesus’ mission in Israel’s longing for salvation and her hope for a renewed existence. He was, after all, “looking for the consolation of Israel” and found it in Jesus. Vs. 25. Yet Simeon’s words to the effect that God’s salvation has been prepared “in the presence of all peoples” and that the messiah is to be “a light for revelation to the gentiles” foreshadow the movement of the church in the Book of Acts beyond the scope of Israel. Vs. 31. The cross is also foreshadowed by Simeon’s warning to Mary that “a sword shall pierce through your heart also.” Vs. 35.

The other main actor in this drama is Anna, daughter of Phanuel of the tribe of Asher. “Anna” is the Greek equivalent of “Hannah,” the mother of Samuel. It appears that from the death of her husband early in their marriage, Anna has been living a life of devotion to prayer and religious observance. The suggestion that she might have belonged to a religious community of widows providing service to the temple is interesting, but lacking in evidential support of any kind. Like Simeon, she was looking for “the redemption of Jerusalem.” Vs. 38. Whereas Simeon appears to have been speaking principally to Mary, Anna speaks of the child Jesus to all who, like her, anticipate the salvation of Israel.

 

A pro-life manifesto; a poem by Medora C. Addison; and the lessons for Sunday, December 24, 2017

See the source imageFOURTH SUNDAY OF ADVENT

2 Samuel 7:1-11, 16
Psalm 89:1-4, 19-26
Romans 16:25-27
Luke 1:26-38

PRAYER OF THE DAY: Stir up your power, Lord Christ, and come. With your abundant grace and might, free us from the sin that would obstruct your mercy, that willingly we may bear your redeeming love to all the world, for you live and reign with the Father and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

The miracle of the Incarnation is the very core of our Christian understanding of God. We believe that God was born of a homeless woman in a shed. We confess that God is weak, vulnerable and in need of care and protection. The vulnerability of God in the womb of Mary compels the belief that human life is sacred from the time of conception and deserving of our most lavish protection. For that reason, I am and always have been adamantly and unequivocally pro-life. I am convinced that terminating a pregnancy brings to an end the life of a unique human being. For that reason, every effort should be made to preserve, support and encourage the carrying of every pregnancy to full term. Here is what that means to me.

The most effective way to prevent the termination of a pregnancy is to prevent unwanted pregnancies. That requires sex education at the elementary school level. It also requires making gynecological care and access to birth control available to all people of childbearing age, including teens. The argument that availability of birth control and sex education will encourage more teens to become sexually active has not proven to be the case. In reality, neither sex education nor the availability of birth control increases the degree of teen sexual activity, but they do significantly reduce the instances of teen pregnancy. Over all, where women are given access to good gynecological care, including reproductive care and counseling, we find far fewer unintended and unwanted pregnancies; hence, fewer abortions. Support for family planning and sex education is a pro-life position.

Furthermore, the best way to protect the lives of the unborn is to care for their mothers. Food, nutrition counseling, and access to health services are provided to low-income women, infants, and children under the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children, popularly known as WIC. This program is designed to ensure that women are able to obtain the nutrition necessary to remain healthy throughout their pregnancies and feed their children when they are born. Knowing that there are resources available for women to raise and care for their children creates a strong incentive to continue a pregnancy. Supporting the WIC program and other nutritional support programs for low income persons is therefore a pro-life position.

Health care is a critical factor in preserving the lives of the unborn. Having a child is an expensive proposition when, for whatever reason, one does not have health insurance coverage. This is particularly so for high risk pregnancies, complicated deliveries and post-natal problems. Too often, abortion appears to be the only alternative to bankruptcy or homelessness. Universal health insurance coverage ensures that no baby will ever be “too expensive.” Support for universal health care coverage is therefore a pro-life position.

Finally, there some circumstances under which a pregnancy should be ended. If you believe that a girl below the age of consent, a victim of rape or incest, a woman to whom pregnancy and childbirth pose serious psychiatric or medical risks should be compelled by law to carry a pregnancy to term, then your moral compass is oriented to the north pole of a different planet than the earth I inhabit. I doubt we have enough moral common ground to continue this discussion further. But if, like me, you agree that there are circumstances were abortion is a responsible, if tragic, necessity; then there is just one question left: Who decides when a pregnancy should be terminated?

Deciding whether to end a pregnancy is difficult and fraught with conflicting interests and priorities. The medical, social and financial issues bearing on that decision are never clear and require wisdom, discernment and an intimate knowledge of the persons affected. I am firmly convinced that no one is in a better position to make such a decision than the persons closest to it and most directly affected by it. Women, not the state, not the courts or the medical establishment, are in the best position to determine what, under all of the circumstances, is best for their own physical and emotional well-being and that of their children. Consequently, enabling women to make these difficult decisions by providing access to affordable, medically safe surgical procedures, including abortion, is a pro-life position.

Yes, it is possible that some women will make poor choices-as do governments, courts and medical professionals. But, on the whole, mothers tend to make the best choices for themselves and their families-especially when given every conceivable opportunity to choose life, including early sex education, access to birth control, nutritional support, gynecological care and adequate health insurance coverage. That is why God entrusted the life of his Only Begotten Son to the care of a woman. Entrusting the welfare and protection of the unborn to the care of their mothers is, therefore, a biblical pro-life position.

Here is a poem by Medora C. Addison  about a mother’s desperate, fierce and sheltering love that would probably have resonated with Mary, the mother of our Lord.

Motherhood

Playing alone by the ocean’s edge,
Eager and unafraid,
You are the child I used to be,
Playing the games I played.

Now I have only a coward’s heart,     
Finding you all too dear,
Learning at last that love shall teach
The fearless how to fear.

You are so little against the sky,
Laughing and undismayed       
Oh, little son by the ocean’s edge,
I am afraid, afraid!

Source:  Poetry, Vol. 29, No. 5 (February 1922). Little is known about the life of Medora C. Addison. It appears that she was born in December 1891 in Massachusetts and attended Yale University where she was chosen for the Yale Series of Younger Poetry in 1922.

2 Samuel 7:1-11, 16

Israel was ever ambivalent about the institution of monarchy. The Hebrew Scriptures at times extol the monarchy as God’s instrument of justice and peace. As God’s representative, the king “delivers the needy when he calls, the poor and him who has no helper. He has pity on the weak and the needy, and saves the lives of the needy.” Psalm 72:12-13. The prophets took a more critical view of kingship in Israel. Ezekiel criticize the kings of Israel and Judah for looking after their own interests and allowing the “sheep” to be scattered and lost. Ezekiel 34:1-10. So, too, Jeremiah railed against these “shepherds” of Israel whose self-serving ways brought about the destruction of the flock. Jeremiah 23:1-4.

These two divergent views of the monarchy in Israel are woven together throughout the narratives of I & II Samuel. The pro-monarchy view comes to us from an early source probably compiled during the reign of Solomon, David’s son. This writer regards the establishment of kingship in Israel as divinely ordained for Israel’s salvation. Anyone who lived to see the rise of the Israelite empire from a loose confederacy of divided tribes oppressed by the militarily superior Philistines could not fail to be impressed by David, the architect of this great achievement. For the first time ever Israel lived within secure borders. Trade and commerce flourished under the protection of the new central government. Israel was beginning to be recognized as a power to be reckoned with among the other nations. Under these circumstances, it is not surprising that the monarchy was seen as an instrument of God’s blessing and salvation.

The later source was likely composed during the latter days of the Judean monarchy between 750 B.C.E. and 650 B.C.E. This author views Samuel as the true and greatest ruler of Israel. S/He views the monarchy as a sinful rejection of God’s rule over Israel. By this time, Israel had experienced civil war and the succession of ten of its twelve tribes from the house of David. Injustice, corruption and idolatry turned out to be the price of commercial success and military power under monarchy. The prophets gave voice to God’s displeasure with Israel’s kings and to the cries of those crushed under their oppressive yolk. Samuel’s warnings against the consequences of monarchy had come true with a vengeance. I Samuel 8:10-18. Nevertheless, this subsequent writer still views David in a positive light in spite of his having been elected to a disfavored institution.

Most scholars agree that II Samuel 7:1-29 is a late theological commentary inserted into the early source intended to explain why David was not chosen to build the temple in Jerusalem. That purpose is not readily discernable from our reading because verses 12-15 have been omitted. These verses make clear that God has chosen David’s heir to build the temple. I believe that this section also serves to clarify the nature of the Davidic covenant as subordinate to God’s covenant with all Israel at Sinai. Though God’s promise to preserve faithfully the line of David is repeated here, the prophet Nathan warns that iniquity on the part of David’s descendants will meet with punishment. Vss. 14-15.

The key to this interchange between the word of the Lord, delivered through Nathan, and David is found in the various meanings of the Hebrew word for “house.” Initially, David intends to build a “house” for the Ark of the Covenant. So used, the term means “shrine” or “temple.” God responds by promising to build David a “house,” clearly meaning a dynasty. If you were to read on to verses 18-20, you would discover that the same term is used again to describe family status, i.e., “Who am I, Lord God, and what is my house that thou hast brought me thus far?” Vs. 18. This is clearly a reference to the former insignificance of the family of Jesse and David’s status as the youngest of Jesse’s sons. The different shades of meaning for this one word serve to illuminate the depth and complexity of the Davidic covenant and the significance of the temple. Both are subordinate to the Sinai covenant and flow from the faithfulness of God to Israel expressed in that covenant. The temple is not to be a shrine to the Ark, but the place where God’s name dwells. Vs. 13. Though established “forever,” the dynasty of David is answerable to Torah and subject to God’s punishment for violating it. Vss 13-14.

This scripture invites us to contemplate our response to expectations that fail to materialize. It is evident that the line of David did in fact come to an end following the Babylonian conquest of 587 B.C.E. Either God’s promise failed or its fulfilment lies beyond the scope of the Judean monarchy. Second Isaiah deals with this problem by suggesting that God’s “steadfast, sure love for David” now embraces all Israel rather than any one individual descendent of David. Isaiah 55:3-5. Later Judaism saw in the Davidic covenant the promise of a messianic deliverer. This hope, in all of its many permutations, was very much alive in Jesus’ day. Jesus himself appears to have invited his hearers to consider in what sense the promised messiah could be considered “the son of David.” See Mark 12:35-40Matthew 22:41-46Luke 20:41-44. So also, both Judaism as a whole and the early church struggled with the meaning of the temple’s destruction by Rome in 70 C.E. As I have often said before, I believe the Letter to the Hebrews is in large part a response to this crisis.

Promise/fulfilment is a common theme throughout the Advent season. Now as throughout history, the people of God are called upon to discern how the ancient promises are working themselves out in our midst. For Christians, the challenge is to discover the layers of meaning and the richness given to the gospel narratives by the Hebrew Scriptures out of which they grew. Care must be taken, however, to respect the witness to these scriptures given by the Jewish people in all ages. There is no place for a theology of supersessionism in which Christianity is seen to “replace” or “supersede” Judaism. As Paul points out in the latter half of his Letter to the Romans, both Israel and the church play a critical role in God’s redemptive purpose for the world.

Psalm 89:1-4, 19-26

Although it focuses on the rise of the Davidic monarchy as God’s saving act, the psalm begins with an acknowledgement that the true sovereign of all the earth is God. Vss. 1-2. God makes a “covenant” with David. Vs. 3. A covenant is more than a mere contract. In the ancient near east, covenants were usually made between kings-and generally not between equals. It was common for a dominant king to enter into a covenant with the king of a subservient nation. Under the terms of the covenant, the stronger king would promise to provide military protection from common enemies (and a promise that he himself would not attack!). In return, the weaker king would pay tribute and promise undivided allegiance to the stronger king. The weaker king would often give his daughters in marriage to the stronger. (The fact that one’s daughter is at the mercy of a foreign king would naturally make one think twice about commencing hostilities!).

In the covenant with David, God is the dominant partner. Yet, oddly enough, God promises both protection andeternal faithfulness. God’s love for and support of David is not contingent on David’s past accomplishments or on his promise to be loyal to the Lord. It is a one way covenant in which all of the promises flow from God to David and his line.

Although the image of parenthood is used (vs. 26), David is every inch a human being and there is no suggestion that his being anointed king confers divinity on him. This is one feature setting the Israelite concept of kingship apart from Canaanite ideas. There is no suggestion in this psalm that David is chosen on the basis of merit. Nothing is said about David’s character or his good deeds that might have led God to select him as a covenant partner and king over Israel. We hear plenty, though, about the character of God and God’s determination to stand by the promises made to David. Vss. 20-24. Once again, being king does not set one above the commandments of God. If anything, the king has a greater responsibility to observe justice and righteousness. He stands in God’s place as the representative of God. As such, his failures are not merely his own. They have an impact on the nation for which he is responsible. As Jesus was wont to say, “To whom much is given, much is expected.” Luke 12:48.

If you were to read the Psalm 89 in its entirety (which I always recommend) you would discover that the psalm’s tone changes abruptly from a mood of praise to bitter lament at verse 38. Obviously, the situation in which the king now finds himself does not evidence the protection and success promised to the line of David in the “vision” discussed in the earlier part. Vss. 19-26. We do not know the precise historical setting of this psalm. Because the prayer is by or for a king currently (though tenuously) on the throne, it is safe to assume that it was written before the Davidic dynasty came to an end in 587 B.C.E. with the second Babylonian invasion. The prayer might reflect the desperate situation in which David found himself during the rebellion of his son, Absalom. Or it might reflect the invasion by Egypt during the reign of Solomon’s son, Rehoboam. It could have been composed after the tragic death of the young King Josiah at the hands of Pharaoh Neco or the siege of Jerusalem under Zedekiah. Whatever the historical setting, it must have been a very traumatic and faith shaking experience for Israel to see the Lord’s anointed, the heir of David, God’s covenant partner so thoroughly defeated. What could this mean? Had God abandoned the covenant? Had the Lord forgotten all the promises made to David? Where was God’s salvation in this time of need?

The mood of the disciples must have been very similar when they saw their Lord nailed to the tree and crying out, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” Yet just when it seemed that God could not be further away from them, God had drawn near in the most profound way possible. Jesus’ death and resurrection bring to crescendo Israel’s stubborn belief that, however dark the hour, God is at work in history. It is often when we find ourselves with the sea in front of us and a hostile army at our heels-or at the tomb where our last, best hope seems dead and buried-that God works salvation.

Romans 16:25-27

This is the conclusion to Paul’s Letter to the Romans in which he has gone to great lengths explaining in some detail how “the revelation of the mystery which was kept secret for long ages but is now disclosed and through the prophetic writings is made known to all nations, according to the command of the eternal God, to bring about the obedience of faith…” vss. 25-26. This snippet plays nicely into the prophecy/fulfillment theme of Advent, but I cannot imagine how one could preach on it without reaching back into the body of Romans and reconstructing Paul’s argument. Such a project is far too big for any one sermon and best saved for periods in the church year where consecutive readings from the Letter to the Romans are featured in the lectionary. This last summer would have been a good time for that.

Luke 1:26-38

Luke’s telling of the nativity narrative is strikingly different from that of Matthew in several respects. Whereas in Matthew Joseph is the recipient of angelic revelation, in Luke he is altogether absent from the scene until the trip to Bethlehem. In Matthew’s gospel, the angel’s messages come through dreams. Luke has the angel Gabriel addressing Zachariah and Mary directly. Derived from the Hebrew words “Gavar” meaning “strong man” and “el,” a word for God, the name Gabriel is best translated “God has shown himself mighty.” Brueggemann, Walter, “Gabriel,” The Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, Vol. 2 (c. 1962 by Abington Press) p. 332. Gabriel first appears in Daniel explaining to the prophet a vision of the end that he has just seen. Daniel 8:15-17. See also Daniel 9:21. Though not otherwise mentioned in the canonical Hebrew Scriptures, Gabriel is frequently portrayed as God’s agent of revelation, punishment and salvation throughout later Jewish writings such as the Books of Enoch. It is important to understand that in Hebraic thought, God is fully present in the person of God’s messenger. Ibid, p. 333.

The impact of Gabriel’s message is very much muted by the later church’s fixation on the “immaculate conception” and our 19th Century prejudice against that which does not fit our empirical world view. Few people in the 1st Century B.C.E. doubted that God (or a god) could bring about a pregnancy miraculously. The remarkable thing here is that Gabriel, God’s chief messenger, should be sent 1) to a woman; 2) to an insignificant town in Galilee; 3) to announce that God’s messiah and David’s heir was to be born to this woman of no particular standing. Luke goes out of his way to let us know that he is well aware of contemporary events and the way in which history appears to be unfolding through the likes of Herod the Great and Caesar Augustus. Yet he would have us know that the true history, the history that matters, the history God is making will unfold not in Jerusalem or Rome, but in the small hamlet of Nazareth. The hope of Israel and the whole world will be born to a homeless couple in a drafty animal shelter. That is the miracle at which Luke would have us marvel.

What, then, shall we say of the “virgin birth”? Though not as pronounced as in Matthew’s gospel, one point seems to be that Jesus’ conception and birth is at the initiation of God and independent from requirements of lineage, status and blood. Something new and different is taking place with the birth of Jesus. How does God initiate that birth? Luke tells Mary, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be called holy, the Son of God.” Vs. 35. Perhaps the church would have been wise simply to leave it there. Who can explain the workings of the Holy Spirit? We know that the Spirit can work through events that appear to unfold naturally and in accord with what we understand about the processes of nature. Yet the Spirit also introduces novelty that strains our credibility, exceeds our expectations and challenges our imaginative abilities. Who can say how the Spirit worked in this instance? Does it really matter?

It may not have mattered to the first readers of Luke’s gospel, but it became an important question for the church in later years as she struggled to make the gospel intelligible to Mediterranean culture while remaining faithful to her biblical roots. Without rehashing the first six centuries of the church’s history, it is fair to say that the confession of Jesus as the Son of God born of the virgin Mary was part and parcel of the church’s insistence that Jesus was no less human than he was divine; that God as creator took naturally to human flesh created in God’s image; that the Incarnate Word has plumbed the depths of all that it is to be human. At the end of the day, the Incarnation is a mystery that can be contemplated, worshiped and believed, but never fully understood. We cannot insist on any particular metaphysical understanding of virginal conception because this says more than the biblical witness tells us. Neither can we dogmatically maintain that the birth of Jesus must have occurred under purely “natural” circumstances as we think we understand them. Assertion of either position says both too much and too little.

Gabriel’s assurance that “with God nothing will be impossible” and Mary’s response, “let it be to me according to your word” fitly summarize the import of this lesson. To be fully open to God requires belief in God’s willingness and ability to do all things-even the seemingly impossible. Advent beckons us to just such radical openness. It challenges us to suspend our judgments about who we think God is, who our neighbor really is and what are the possibilities for the future, both ours and the world’s. During this holy season we are challenged to expect the impossible!

 

“Thoughts and prayers” don’t cut it; a poem by Ellery Akers; and the lessons for Sunday, December 17, 2017

See the source imageTHIRD SUNDAY OF ADVENT

Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11
Psalm 126
1 Thessalonians 5:16-24
John 1:6-8, 19-28

PRAYER OF THE DAY: Stir up the wills of your faithful people, Lord God, and open our ears to the words of your prophets, that, anointed by your Spirit, we may testify to your light; through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

“Beloved, pray for us.” I Thessalonians 5:25.

In tweets responding to “thoughts and prayers” directed to the victims of the recent church shooting in Southerland Springs, Texas by the likes of President Donald Trump, House Speaker Paul Ryan and many other political leaders, Washington Post correspondent Karen Tumulty remarked, “thoughts and prayers for people who were mowed down in a church sounds especially hollow.” Singer and song writer Rosanne Cash noted that “[the shooting victims] were in a church that was full of prayers. They need a government who will enact common sense gun laws.” Actor Michael McKean observed that “They were in church. They had the prayers shot right out of them. Maybe try something else.” I fully understand these sentiments. So does the Apostle James:

“If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,” and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that?” James 2:16.

Just as this mock benediction from the Epistle of James rings hollow to persons who are homeless and hungry, so also “thoughts and prayers” from government officials entrusted with protecting their citizens from violence come across as empty, hypocritical and impotent to citizens whose loved ones have died as a result of their willful neglect. If the Republican controlled congress loved their citizens half as much as they crave the endorsement of the gun lobby and its lavish gifts of cash to their campaigns, there would be no need for them to console the Southerland victims with empty platitudes. For more on that, see my post of October 4, 2017.

The prayers Saint Paul asks of the church in Thessalonica, are of an entirely different order. His plea for prayer comes not from some far of executive seated in a distant corner office issuing Hallmark platitudes on company stationery, but from a pastor who has labored among and prayed fervently for the people whose prayers he now seeks. This is a church immersed in “the work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness.” I Thessalonians 1:3. Paul’s prayers for this faithful church and the prayers he seeks from them grow out of their shared baptismal commitment to the reign of God. They are not a pious substitute for meaningful action, but a plea for God’s inspiration, support and strength for the work in which they are already engaged. Furthermore, Paul is not looking for prayers addressing his own personal needs. He is urging the Thessalonians to pray for his mission to the world, his ministry among his many congregations and the spread of the good news of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection. For Paul, prayer is part and parcel of the church’s struggle to live faithfully under the reign of God in a world fiercely resistant to that gentle reign. Divorced from this sacred context, prayer becomes little more than a bland expression of good intent or a laundry list of personal favors. “Thoughts and prayers” is religious short hand for “good luck.”

Of course, I don’t fault politicians or anyone else for expressing sympathy to the Southerland victims’ families. Nor do I fault them for the seeming soullessness of their well wishes. Who of us can ever find words that bring true comfort in the face of such horrendous tragedy? Sympathy, however, is not enough. Words unaccompanied by action are worse than silence. Mass shootings should not be happening (and in most other industrialized nations do not happen) with regularity. It is the job of government to protect its people from systemic violence of this kind. Expressions of sympathy from governmental leaders for victims of gun violence who have not and do not intend to take any steps to eliminate it might well be sincere, but they should not be confused with genuine prayer. Moreover, such sentiments are clearly not enough. Just as “faith without works is dead,” so prayer for an outcome you are not prepared to live for, sacrifice for and, if need be, die for is just sanctimonious hot air.

Here’s a poem by Ellery Akers speaking to that fragile word that is prayer and suggesting how the answer to prayer might be closer than what we think.

The Word That Is a Prayer

One thing you know when you say it:
all over the earth people are saying it with you:
a child blurting it out as the seizures take her,
a woman reciting it on a cot in a hospital.
What if you take a cab through the Tenderloin:
at a street light, a man in a wool cap,
yarn unraveling across his face, knocks at the window;
he says, Please.
By the time you hear what he’s saying,
the light changes, the cab pulls away,
and you don’t go back, though you know
someone just prayed to you the way you pray.
Please: a word so short
it could get lost in the air
as it floats up to God like the feather it is,
knocking and knocking, and finally
falling back to earth as rain,
as pellets of ice, soaking a black branch,
collecting in drains, leaching into the ground,
and you walk in that weather every day.

Source: The Place That Inhabits Us, Sixteen Rivers Press, c. 2010 (Poem originally copyrighted by Ellery Akers, 1997). Ellery Akers is a poet, children’s writer and naturalist living in Marin County, California. She earned a BA at Harvard University and studied at San Francisco State University where she got her masters. She is the author of two poetry collections. She has been honored with the Poetry International Prize, the John Masefield Award, the Paumanok Award and Sierra magazine’s Nature Writing Award. You can learn more about Ellery Akers and sample more of her poetry at the Poetry Foundation website.

Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11

As I have noted previously, the fifty sixth chapter of the Book of Isaiah opens into what scholars agree is a third collection of prophetic oracles separate from the prophet Isaiah of the 8th Century B.C.E. (Isaiah 1-39) and Second Isaiah (Isaiah 40-55) who prophesied toward the end of the Babylonian Exile. These prophesies, comprising what is commonly called “Third Isaiah” (Isaiah 56-66), come from a period beginning shortly after the return of the exiled Jews from Babylon in 539 B.C.E., but before the rebuilding of the temple in about 515 B.C.E.

Our lesson has affinities with the “servant songs” of Second Isaiah, particularly Isaiah 50:4-11. (For more info on the “servant songs,” see my post of April 9, 2017.) These words constitute the opening declaration of a section Professor Claus Westermaan calls “the nucleus” of chapters 56-66, the third part of the Book of the Prophet Isaiah. Westermann, Claus, Isaiah 40-66, The Old Testament Library (c. 1969 by SCM Press Ltd.) p. 352. The prophet announces that s/he has been anointed to “bring good tidings to the afflicted.” Vs. 1. The term afflicted might also be translated “poor.” However one chooses to translate the term, it obviously applies to the Jews who took up Second Isaiah’s challenge to return to their homeland and rebuild the ruined city of Jerusalem. If these pilgrims were expecting this task to be an easy one, they were sorely disappointed. Upon their homecoming, they faced grinding poverty, hostility from their Samaritan and Arab neighbors and political opposition from within the Persian Empire that now dominated the Middle East. Enthusiasm for rebuilding Jerusalem and the temple waned. For some time after the arrival of the first returning exiles it appeared as though the whole project would be abandoned.

The prophet we commonly identify as “Third Isaiah” understood his calling as a continuation of his predecessor’s mission. Whereas Second Isaiah’s preaching inspired the Jews to return to their homeland, Third Isaiah encouraged them to complete the task of rebuilding it. To that end, the prophet is endowed with the Spirit of God. Vs. 1. Throughout the Hebrew Scriptures, the Spirit of the Lord is recognized as that power of God enabling human beings to do extraordinary things. See, e.g. Judges 3:10Judges 11:29; and II Chronicles 20:14. So also, the word of God proclaimed by the prophet is more than just verbiage. The Word is the agency by which God acts and in some sense God’s self. See, e.g., Isaiah 55:10-11. By the enabling power of God’s Spirit, the prophet is sent forth to unleash the freeing power of the word that heals, liberates and releases. Vs. 1.

“The day of vengeance of our God.” Vs. 2. Though not literally incorrect, the use of the word “vengeance” is not the best choice for the Hebrew meaning. The word might better be rendered “rescue” or “restore” as the notes to the New Oxford Annotated Bible point out. The prophet maintains that it is God’s intent to erase the hierarchical power structures under which God’s people are “afflicted” and “poor.” This restorative intent is evident from the following declarations of “comfort” to all who mourn, “gladness instead of mourning,” “praise instead of a faint spirit,” rebuilding for the “ancient ruins” and repair for “devastations of many generations.” Vss. 2-5.

The makers of the lectionary have omitted verses 5-7, no doubt out of squeamishness. Here are the offensive words:

Strangers shall stand and feed your flocks,
foreigners shall till your land and dress your vines;
6 but you shall be called priests of the Lord,
you shall be named ministers of our God; you shall enjoy the wealth of the nations,
and in their riches you shall glory.
7 Because their* shame was double,
and dishonor was proclaimed as their lot,
therefore they shall possess a double portion;
everlasting joy shall be theirs.

Isaiah 61:5-7.

Only God and the lectionary people themselves know what was in their peevish little minds when they took their scalpels to this text. I suspect that this lacuna was created out of respect for the sensitivities of their mainline protestant, progressive, slightly left of center, ever white and ever polite constituency. Nothing spoils the progressive mood like making foreigners into laborers in the vineyards of the chosen people. That hardly squares with our Enlightenment egalitarian ethics. But then, our Enlightenment egalitarian ethics don’t square with the Scriptures either. The Scriptures speak not of equality, but justice. As Jesus frequently noted, “the last shall be first and the first shall be last.” Matthew 19:30Matthew 20:16Mark 10:31. He was speaking, of course, of life under the reign of God. Even those who are last in the kingdom are still within the kingdom. That should be enough. If being the last in the kingdom is a problem for you, it’s a sure indication that you don’t yet understand the kingdom and are not yet ready for it. Why should we balk at being servants to the people of God? Why should we object to taking our place among the “least”? Isn’t that the way to true greatness in kingdom terms?

Another problem in our reading of these verses arises from our cultural disdain for labor generally and manual labor in particular. Only recently an article in the Wall Street Journal warned workers in the fast food industry that, if they continued lobby for a living wage, they would be replaced by machines. Late stage capitalism’s undervaluation of such work and its contempt for those who perform it is alien to biblical thought. Caring for livestock, plowing and planting are all essential to human well-being and proper care for the land. It is precisely the sort of work for which human beings were created. That the nations should share their wealth and contribute their labor to the restoration of Israel does not amount to exploitation anymore than did support of the Levitical priesthood by means of the tithe in ancient Israel. Just as God blessed Israel through the ministry of the Levites, so God now blesses the nations of the world through a restored Israel.

Finally, Israel’s restoration does not come about through conquest and subjugation of the nations. Rather, God’s restoration of Israel draws all the nations to the worship of God. “And all nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your rising.” Isaiah 60:3. Within the larger canonical context, Israel herself is seen as a “suffering servant” whose faithfulness unto death is a light to the nations. It is through her witness that the nations will learn how service to the God who is God, rather than striving for nationalistic dominance, leads to blessing and peace. Thus, the nations’ service to Israel does not come about through conquest and is not carried out in a hierarchical context. It is instead the faithful response of a world that finally recognizes its Creator. The intent is summed up in verse 11: “For as the earth brings forth its shoots, and as a garden causes what is sown in it to spring up, so the Lord God will cause righteousness and praise to spring forth before all the nations.” (I owe this last insight to Rev. Roy Riley, Pastor and former Bishop of the New Jersey Synod-ELCA).

Verse 10 marks a transition. Whereas the speaker in the first nine verses is the God of Israel, the prophet himself/herself begins speaking in verse 10. These last two verses of the chapter constitute a brief psalm of praise in which the prophet rejoices in the privilege of his/her calling and expresses confidence in God’s willingness and ability to bring about his redemptive purpose for all humanity. All in all, this passage delivers a powerful declaration of hope altogether fitting for the season of Advent.

Psalm 126

This psalm is labeled a “Song of Ascents.” It shares this title with a larger group of fourteen other psalms. (Psalms 120-134). The meaning of the title has not been established beyond doubt. It is thought by a number of scholars to mean that this group of songs was composed for use in the procession of pilgrims coming to Jerusalem for high festivals. Other scholars cast doubt on this hypothesis, pointing out that most of these psalms appear to have been composed for cultic purposes unrelated to the Zion tradition.

“When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion…” Vs. 1. The reference may be to a revival experienced by Judah under the long and prosperous reign of King Uzziah (783 B.C.E. to 742 B.C.E.). It might also refer to the reign of King Josiah (640 B.C.E. to 609 B.C.E.) who, during a power vacuum resulting from the decline of the Assyrian Empire, was able to re-conquer all of the lands and territories belonging not only to Judah, but also to the former Kingdom of Israel to the north. The Psalmist may also be alluding to the decree of Cyrus the Great in 538 B.C.E. allowing the Jews exiled in Babylon to return to their homeland and rebuild the temple. In any event, the psalmist is reflecting on a significant act of God’s salvation experienced at some point in Israel’s history. Obviously, this saving event is in the past. Verses 4-6 make it clear that Israel’s present situation is bleak and in need of restoration.

“…we were like those who dream. Then our mouth was filled with laughter, and our tongue with shouts of joy…” Vss. 1-2. Extremely good news does seem to have a dream like quality about it. So also one can become light headed from laughter. Perhaps that is what the psalmist had in mind. Of course, dreams frequently have a prophetic dimension the in the scriptures, i.e. Joseph (both the patriarch of Genesis and the husband of Mary in Matthew’s gospel). The Hebrew word pronounced “goyim” is used for “the nations” in verse 2. Though the nations were considered outside of God’s covenant with Israel, what God accomplished for Israel was intended not merely for Israel’s own benefit, but as a testimony to the nations of God’s goodness and power.

“Negeb,” in verse 4 means literally “a dry land.” The reference is to a triangle of 12,500 square kilometers in the southern area of Palestine. It has numerous riverbeds that are dry for most of the year but rush with water during the seasonal rains. During these brief periods, the beds become lush with vegetation. The psalm concludes with a prayer that the life-giving streams of God’s Spirit will revive Israel again just as the seasonal rains revive the Negeb. God’s saving acts in the past strengthen Israel’s resolve to look toward the future in hope, even as she toils now in what seems to be fruitless labor.

This Psalm inspired the popular American Spiritual, Bringing in the Sheaves, lyrics and music of which is in the public domain:

Sowing in the morning, sowing seeds of kindness,
Sowing in the noontide and the dewy eve;
Waiting for the harvest, and the time of reaping,
We shall come rejoicing, bringing in the sheaves.

Refrain:
Bringing in the sheaves, bringing in the sheaves,
We shall come rejoicing, bringing in the sheaves,
Bringing in the sheaves, bringing in the sheaves,
We shall come rejoicing, bringing in the sheaves.

Sowing in the sunshine, sowing in the shadows,
Fearing neither clouds nor winter’s chilling breeze;
By and by the harvest, and the labor ended,
We shall come rejoicing, bringing in the sheaves.
Refrain

Going forth with weeping, sowing for the Master,
Though the loss sustained our spirit often grieves;
When our weeping’s over, He will bid us welcome,
We shall come rejoicing, bringing in the sheaves.
Refrain

1 Thessalonians 5:16-24

“Rejoice always, pray constantly, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.” Vs. 16-18. This condensed word of exhortation is worth its weight in gold. It sounds hopelessly trite to say that we would all be a good deal happier if we rejoiced instead of crabbing; prayed instead of worrying and gave thanks instead of complaining. Like most biblical exhortations, it is trite apart from faith in Jesus Christ. Placed into the context of the entire first letter to the Thessalonians however, these words are rich with meaning. Because Jesus conquered death, we can rejoice even when death encroaches upon our lives. Because Jesus is always present in our midst, all times are right for prayer. Because we know that the most precious possession we have, the kingdom of heaven, can never be taken from us, we always have much for which to be thankful. It is God’s will that we be joyful, prayerful and thankful. God enables us so to live by giving us good reason for joy, prayer and thankfulness.

Paul warns the Thessalonian church not to “quench the Spirit” or “despise prophecy.” Vss. 19-20. To fully appreciate what Paul is saying here we need to look beyond this letter to his first letter to the Corinthian church. There Paul speaks of the Spirit as the One that calls each individual member into a single Body. Members of the Body never act on their own behalf to further their own selfish interests. They exercise their unique gifts to build up and strengthen the Body. See I Corinthians 12. Prophesy is one such gift to be exercised to that end.

Why would anyone despise prophesy? You only need to read a little of it from the Hebrew Scriptures to understand why prophesy is sometimes met with hostility. Part of a prophet’s job is to tell the community things it does not want to hear. Churches don’t like to be told that they are unwelcoming, member oriented and harbor attitudes of racial prejudice. Churches don’t like being told they need to change. Churches sometimes wish that the prophets among them would just shut up already. But the health of a church depends on vigorous prophetic critique to keep it honest and focused on what matters.

Of course, prophesy is designed to build up the Body of Christ. Even when it seems to anger, tear down and divide, its ultimate goal is the health of the Body. Thus, prophesy is more than simply an angry rant. Sadly, too much of what passes for prophetic preaching these days amounts to little more than “Bad Dog Sermons.” That is a phrase coined by M. Craig Barnes in a recent article in the Christian Century. He writes: “Most of the people who come to church these days already have a pretty clear sense of their ethical and moral responsibilities. We’re well trained and know what we ought to do. There is little gospel in telling us we’re not doing enough. But that’s the message the church keeps giving.” I must confess that I am not quite as convinced as Barnes that people who come to church always have a clear sense of ethics or morals. Very often it is our very morality that messes us up. Still, simply beating people over the head with their shortcomings does little to motivate and transform. For that we need the good news of Jesus Christ.

Paul is a model of prophetic preaching. He could be painfully blunt in pointing out the failures of his churches. Yet he could also say of his most troublesome and dysfunctional congregation, “Now you are the Body of Christ.” I Corinthians 12:27. He does not say, “You should be the Body of Christ,” or “if you ever get your act together, someday you might be the Body of Christ.” Paul assures his churches that they are in fact Christ’s Body, the church for which Jesus died and the church through which he now lives. Then he goes on to encourage his churches to become what they already are!

John 1:6-8, 19-28

“The material about John [the Baptist] in each Gospel is best understood as each evangelist’s attempt to make clear to his readers this important distinction between the Baptist and Jesus Christ.” Marsh, John, Saint John, The Pelican New Testament Commentaries (c. 1968 John Marsh pub. by Penguin Books, Ltd.) p. 116. At least that is the take of one commentator. While it probably is the case that John’s disciples continued as a community after his execution by Herod Antipas and that this community’s existence made it necessary for the church to address John’s role in the drama of Israel’s redemption, I doubt that this was the only or even the primary purpose for including his ministry in the gospel narrative. In all of the gospels, and most explicitly in John’s gospel, the Baptist serves a critical literary and theological purpose. John the Baptist grounds the ministry of Jesus in the Hebrew scriptural narrative while at the same time showcasing its radical uniqueness. What the story of the transfiguration accomplishes for the synoptic gospels, John’s narrative concerning the Baptist’s ministry does for his own gospel. It testifies to the continuity of Jesus’ mission and ministry with the law and the prophets while distinguishing his person from both Moses and the prophets.

As noted by commentator Raymond Brown, the Sadducean rulers in Jerusalem would not likely have sent Pharisees to represent them. Their appearance here reflects the time of this gospel’s composition following the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem and the reconstitution of Judaism thereafter. Brown, Raymond E., The Gospel According to John I-XII, The Anchor Bible, vol. 29 (c. 1966 by Doubleday) p. 44. By this point, the Pharisaic tradition had come to define Judaism as a whole and was the chief antagonist for John’s church. Ibid.Not surprisingly, then, the role of the Pharisees all but eclipses that of the chief priests who were likely the principle authors of Jesus’ arrest and conviction.

That said, it would not have been unusual for the religious authorities in Jerusalem to investigate the activity of John the Baptist. Vs. 24. Anyone capable of drawing a crowd of admirers within the restive provinces of Judah and Galilee would naturally be of concern to the ruling elites eager to maintain the status quo. It would also be natural to inquire whether John was claiming to be a messianic figure or even a lesser apocalyptic figure such as the returning Elijah foretold in Malachi 4:5-6 or the prophet promised by Moses in Deuteronomy 18:15. Vss. 20-21. But John’s gospel has a specific theological point to make here. As the representative of the law and the prophets, the Baptist must disclaim every redemptive role to be fulfilled by Jesus. Thus, he testifies “I am not” the Messiah. “I am not” Elijah. “I am not” the prophet. These disclaimers must be viewed against the multiple instances in which Jesus will declare “I am.” See e.g., “I who speak to you am he [messiah].” John 4:26 (To the woman at the well); “I am the bread of life” John 6:35; “I am the living bread which came down from heaven” John 8:12; “Truly I say to you, before Abraham was, I am” John 8:58; “I am the door of the sheep” John 10:9; “I am the good shepherd” John 10:14; “I am the resurrection and the life” John 11:25; “You call me teacher and lord; and you are right, for so I am” John 13:13; “I am the way, the truth and the life; no one comes to the Father, but by me” John 14:6; “I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinedresser” John 15:1; “I am he.” John 18:5 (To the temple police at his arrest).

When it comes to who John the Baptist is, John will only say that he is “a voice.” “Essentially, John does nothing [in the gospel] but testify to Jesus.” Collins, Raymond F., “From John to the Beloved Disciple,” Interpretation Vol. 49, no. 4 October 1995, p.362. “[I]n effect, his is the voice not only of God but also of the implied author.” Ibid. John cannot speak positively until Jesus arrives on the scene. Only then does John have something to which he can point and say, “Behold!” John 1:29.

Karl Barth once said that the church is only the impact crater left by Jesus. I think that says too little. The Apostle Paul is emphatic in his insistence that the church is the Body of Christ, and for him that is no mere metaphor. It is nevertheless true that the church is called to be fully transparent so that the world sees Jesus in it. We faithfully discharge our witness solely to the extent that we have been shaped by the impact Jesus has made upon us. To the degree that we call attention to ourselves, our works and our projects we get in our own way. So Barth is correct in one sense. Without Jesus, we are just an empty hole in the ground. Our existence derives from our testimony to the One who is to come.