Posts Tagged Covenant
SECOND SUNDAY IN LENT
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
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.
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 45:4-15; Genesis 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.
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 15:34; Matthew 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 5; Psalm 7; Psalm 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.
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.
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.
FIFTH SUNDAY AFTER EPIPHANY
PRAYER OF THE DAY: Everlasting God, you give strength to the weak and power to the faint. Make us agents of your healing and wholeness, that your good news may be made known to the ends of your creation, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.
“Lift up your eyes and see: who created these? He who brings out their host by number, calling them all by name.” Isaiah 40:26.
“[God] determines the number of the stars, he gives to all of them their names.” Psalm 147:4.
The International Star Registry (ISR) is an organization founded in 1979 for the purpose of giving the general public an opportunity to name stars in honor or memory of a loved one. The company claims to have named about two million stars since its formation. These christened stars are then copyrighted and published in a series of books. I don’t know what legal effect, if any, attaches to naming a star through the ISR. Nor do I understand quite how one can be certain that his or her star is not being resoled under numerous different names and dedicated to any number of different individuals. But perhaps my concern is misplaced. After all, there are probably more stars in the universe than we poor mortals can begin to name.
Which brings us to the lessons for this coming Sunday, two of which tell us that God not only numbers, but also names the stars. There is something reassuring about God’s knowing and even having names for stars that we will never see. Stars beyond the reach of our most powerful telescopes; stars that have gone dark ages before our planet was born; stars that will be born after our sun has gone dark-all of these stars and the worlds circling them are intimately known by the One who calls them into existence. That being the case, argues the Prophet Isaiah, how can Israel complain that “My way is hidden from the Lord, and my right is disregarded by my God.” Isaiah 40:27. How can Israel imagine that the God who knows and treasures each molecule of the universe could lose track of God’s own covenant people?
Nonetheless, I have no doubt that the people of Judah did feel quite forgotten, living as they were as exiles in a land not their own. I can imagine their faith withering away along with their native language, spoken less frequently day to day and, by the younger generation, perhaps not at all. How long before this once great nation evaporates and disappears into the mist? How long before the sacred texts have no one to read and interpret them? How long before Israel joins the list of peoples known only to archaeologists by the few tell-tail artifacts they have left behind? It is terrible to be forgotten. One great fear I discover time and again among the people I serve is the terror of being forgotten, the fear that there will be no one left to weep at their passing, none to remember the lives they have lived, no one to name a star for them. Then, too, there are the nameless ones known only as “collateral damage” in some conflict of which they wanted no part; body counts following some natural disaster; or statistics in some morbidity report. Numbers with no names.
Sometimes I think we resist giving names to the nameless because doing so would open our hearts to their suffering and make it our own. Knowing that the “illegal aliens” we are so eager to get rid of have names, have children with names, identities, dreams and longings, in short, recognizing them as people makes it harder to banish them from our midst and forget them. Knowing that the “uninsured” is somebody’s baby that is going to die makes it harder to blather on about the love of Jesus and family values out of one side of your mouth while insisting that health care is not a right and should, on principle, be denied to any who can’t afford it. If we allowed ourselves to know the names of the millions who suffer to sustain the supremacy of white privilege, male hierarchy and “our American way of life,” it would crush us-in just the same way that this knowledge crushes the heart of God. Yes, to be a child of God is to experience the crushing pain of the universe God feels. It is to take up the cross.
Of course, this pain of naming the stars is the flip side of delighting in each one of them. God would have us love each molecule of the universe, each nameless face and each dying species as God loves them. Perhaps that is why the first task given to Adam at the dawn of time was to name the animals with whom he shared the Garden of Eden. By learning the names of the people that ring up our grocery bills, serve us our French fries, patrol our neighborhoods, pass us on the way to the bus stop, sit in detention centers awaiting deportation, stand on the corner with cardboard signs seeking help, expire all alone as anonymous patients in hospitals-we give them back their humanity. By learning the names of the plant and animal species in our own back yards we begin to appreciate the depth and complexity of this world in which all creatures are interconnected and interdependent. The most precious gift we can give each other is to call one another by name.
Here is a hauntingly sad poem about namelessness by Henry W. Rago.
These winds pass, and breathe a soft song for her,
And press their loving mouths upon the grass
Where yesterday she danced.
The twilight, grey-robed, comes from the glowing mist
To pin a blue star in her rippling hair-
But she is gone…
She left a song to tremble on these lips,
To beat its tired wings upon the narrow cage.
There is no more. The night swoops to the earth
Like a great bird,
And the river undulates into the purple dusk,
Not questioning, not knowing.
Source: Poetry (July 1993, c. Henry Rago). The son of a businessman, Henry Rago (1915-1969) graduated from the DePaul College of Law in 1937. Thereafter, he earned degrees in theology and philosophy from the University of Notre Dame. Rago served overseas in counterintelligence during World War II. After the war, he returned to the United States and taught both theology and literature at the University of Chicago until just before his death. Rago published only one collection of poetry during his lifetime under the title A Sky of Late Summer, (pub. by Macmillan Co., 1963). You can read more about Henry Rago and sample more of his poetry at the Poetry Foundation website.
Chapter forty of Isaiah marks the beginning of a section of that book commonly referred to as “The Book of Consolations” or “Second Isaiah.” Whereas the prophet Isaiah of the first thirty-nine chapters preached to Judah in the 8th Century as the nation lived uneasily in the shadow of the Assyrian Empire, the historical context of this unnamed prophet we refer to as “Second Isaiah” is Babylon’s defeat by Cyrus the Great in or around 538 B.C.E. Babylon’s policy was to carry into exile the leading citizenship of the nations it conquered. This reduced the potential for revolution in these captive provinces while bringing into Babylonian society thousands of skilled and gifted leaders. Cyrus’ policy was to permit peoples, such as the Jews, living in exile within the Babylonian territories he conquered to return to their homelands. Though often hailed as an enlightened and compassionate act, Cyrus’ policy was calculated to destabilize Babylon. When the captive populations learned that Cyrus intended to set them free, they were quick to rally to his side against their Babylonian rulers. The prophet of the Book of Consolations recognized in this new historical development the hand of God creating an opportunity for the people of Judah to return to their homeland-and much, much more.
Our lesson opens with a question: “Have you not known? Have you not heard? Has it not been told you from the beginning? Have you not understood from the foundations of the earth? It is he who sits above the circle of the earth…” vss. 21-22. This indicates a new development in Israel’s thinking about YAHWEH. Although Israel always praised YAHWEH as the greatest of all gods, she did not necessarily deny in principle the existence of other gods. See, e.g., Psalm 82 in which “God has taken his place in the divine counsel; in the midst of the gods he holds judgment.” Here the prophet makes the assertion that other gods have no more substance than the nations that depend on them. In fact, it is YAHWEH who raises up nations and kings for his own purposes. Vss. 23-24. The same goes for Israel. The kingdom under David served its purpose for a time and that time has passed. But does that mean YAHWEH is through with Israel as a people? No! Even though Israel has lost the line of David, the temple and its land-all the things by which it used to identify itself-YAHWEH still has a part for Israel to play. As the prophet points out later on, Israel’s new purpose is far greater than merely restoring the kingdom of David to its former glory. Isaiah 49:6.
“Lift up your eyes on high and see: Who created these?” vs. 26. Another rhetorical question. Ancient near eastern religion attributed dread powers to the stars and planets. Their alignment was believed to control the fate of nations and kingdoms. Not so, according to the prophet. YAHWEH created the stars, named them and set them in their courses to give light to the world. The universe is not a haunted house and the human race is not helplessly caught in the crossfire between warring deities. The world is the product of a Creator who wills salvation for the good earth that he made.
“Why do you say, O Jacob and speak, O Israel, ‘My way is hidden from the Lord, and my right is disregarded by my God’?” Vs. 27. Now the prophet comes right to the point. In view of the fact that God numbers the stars and presides over the rise and fall of all nations and peoples, how can Israel say that God has forgotten her? How can she imagine that YAHWEH’s salvation has failed? The prophet sums up his/her argument by pointing out that YAHWEH is lord not merely of Israel, but of the whole earth. Vs. 28. Not only so, but YAHWEH is concerned for the whole earth and all its peoples. Israel has an important role to play in that universal salvation of the whole earth that is about to be unveiled.
“They who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength.” Vs. 31. The Jewish exiles feel faint and powerless. They have lost the hallmarks that identified them as a people: temple, king and land. So the prophet encourages them with the promise that YAHWEH will renew their strength and enable them to take on the mission to which he is now calling them.
Clearly, the prophet would have us know that Israel’s God is the Lord of nature and history. The prophet is not encouraging fatalism here or a passive trust in God to make everything come out all right in the end. To the contrary, the prophet is keenly aware of the geopolitical events transpiring around him/her. Where most of the exiles might be tempted to see in Persia’s conquest of Babylon only a change of masters under the inevitable yolk of slavery, the prophet recognizes the hand of YAHWEH opening up an opportunity for Israel to begin anew. Just as God once parted the Red Sea for Israel to escape from Egypt, so now God is opening up a way for Israel’s departure from Babylon and return to the land of promise. This is nothing short of a new Exodus. So far from encouraging passivity, the prophet is calling his/her people to seize the moment and begin a bold, new undertaking filled with risk and promise.
Such prophetic imagination is critical for mainline churches in the North American context. For many of us exiles, the landscape looks bleak and unpromising. Never again will our great houses of worship be filled to standing room only on Sunday mornings. Never again will pastors command the honor, respect and social standing we knew during the first half of the prior century. Many of us oscillate between frantic efforts to make the old engine work as it used to and despairing inaction. Others of us recognize a unique opportunity for the church to shed cultural shackles that have compromised its ministry for more than a millennium and become the Body of Christ Jesus would have us be. As has always been the case, the future belongs to the prophets and those who share their vision.
For my discussion of this psalm in its entirety, I invite you to revisit my post of Sunday, January 4, 2014. Many of the same themes found in our lesson for Isaiah are echoed in the psalm. God “heals the broken hearted and binds up their wounds.” Vs. 3. God “determines the number of the stars, he gives to all of them their names.” Vs. 4. Most striking is this juxtaposition between the naming of stars and tender care for “the downtrodden.” Vs. 6. This care extends to the animal and plant population of the planet as well. God gives rain to “make the grass grow upon the hills.” Vs. 8. God “gives to the beasts their food.” Vs. 9.
I am particularly struck by verses 10-11 in which the psalmist reminds us that God takes no pleasure in physical prowess-a discordant note at this time as the nation looks with anticipation toward the Super Bowl. I make no apology for the delight I take in the strength of my Seattle Seahawks (not so impressive this year as in some others). I believe, however, that the psalmist’s reference here is not to athletic prowess, but to military strength. This disparagement of militarism is a consistent theme throughout the Hebrew Scriptures. Even in the Book of Joshua, which is very much about Israel and its wars against Canaan, victory is always attributed to the power of the Lord. A Veteran’s Day holiday would be unthinkable in Israel. No one in Israel would even think about “thanking a veteran” for victory, freedom or prosperity. To the contrary, the psalmist states unequivocally, “for not by their own sword did they win the land, nor did their own arm give them the victory; but thy right hand, and thy arm and the light of thy countenance; for thou didst delight in them.” Psalm 44:3.
America has a deep cultural affection for war heroes, tough cops and gun slinging cowboys whose freewheeling violence brings about a sort of frontier justice far more appealing than the hard-won kind meted out by courts of law. In their recent book, The Myth of the American Superhero, (c. 2002 Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.), John Shelton Lawrence and Robert Jewett argue that, in a culture that doubts the integrity and ability of its government and institutions to achieve justice, people are naturally drawn to the uniquely American “monomyth.” This “monomyth” supplies the underlying plot for stories about heroes who must take the law into their own hands in order to rid a community of evil. The world of entertainment is laced with such monomythic tales. We find them in the oldest black and white westerns that feature a virtuous gunslinger riding into town to rid the populace of a criminal gang neither the law nor the courts can handle. The same basic plot can be found in such recent productions as the Star Wars movies in which “jedi knights” with superhuman powers and a code of law all their own rise up to destroy an evil empire that has usurped the powers of the old republic. The most insidious element of this myth is the unspoken and unquestioned assumption that, when all is said and done, evil can only be eliminated by violence.
Nothing illustrates the futility and the horrific consequences of applying this simplistic Hollywood metaphysic to deeply complicated geopolitical conflicts than our recent military forays into the middle east in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. So far from vanquishing the powers of evil, these exploits have simply bred more powerful and increasingly violent enemies. Peace in the war torn middle east seems further away than ever. Nevertheless, the entertainment industry and our political leaders (who are more entertainers than leaders) continue to operate within the constricted parameters of the monomyth inflaming further conflict, sacrificing more lives and glorifying this senseless butchery with parades, memorial services and white crosses at Arlington Cemetery.
Our country needs in the worst way to have an honest conversation about the role of violence in our culture and its effect on everything from domestic relationships to foreign policy. I believe that the church is an excellent place for such a discussion to begin. We are as divided, confused and complicit with violence as the society at large. We are as caught up in the cult of the warrior and as oblivious to the insidious ideology of institutionalized brutality as are our unbelieving neighbors. We find it nearly impossible to distinguish the “way of life” our nation seeks to defend with the sword from the way of discipleship calling upon us to forsake the sword. We could use some strong pastoral leadership to get this discussion rolling.
“Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel!” vs. 16. There are echoes here of the prophet Jeremiah: If I say, ‘I will not mention him, or speak any more in his name’, then within me there is something like a burning fire shut up in my bones; I am weary with holding it in, and I cannot.” Jeremiah 20:9. Paul grounds both his apostolic authority and his motivation in his call. To be sure, he is entitled to compensation for his work of preaching as he has argued earlier in the chapter. I Corinthians 9:3-7. So also the believers in Corinth have a legal right to consort with prostitutes and are free from moral constraints against eating meat sacrificed to idols. But exercising a legal right does not equate with fulfilling a moral obligation. Being free to do something does not end the ethical inquiry for a disciple of Jesus. Again, everything comes down to what builds up the Body of Christ and enhances the church’s witness to Christ. True freedom, Paul argues, is not the liberty to do whatever you will, but the will to do that which serves Christ and his church. For the sake of the gospel Paul has forgone his “right” to make his living from his work as an evangelist.
Verse 19 sums up Paul’s major thesis: though free from the bondage of external legal/moral demands, the apostle is nevertheless bound to the service of his “neighbor” in the broadest sense of that word. That this obligation extends to those who Paul would win to faith in Christ demonstrates that this service is not limited to those within the church. As Martin Luther would put it fifteen hundred years later, “The Christian is a perfectly free lord subject to none; the Christian is a dutiful servant and slave to all.” What this amounts to is a reorientation of the Torah specifically and all “law” generally. Law is useless as a means of pleasing God. It is critically important, however, to the service of one’s neighbor.
This text is worth talking about because, in my own experience, most solid, pious, sincere, church attending people still don’t get it. I would say that most folks who self-identify as Christians still believe that God’s preoccupation is with the law and human obedience to it. It is almost as though God first created the law and then, as an afterthought, decided that it would be a good idea to create some people to obey all of God’s wonderful rules. So enamored is God with his rules that he can’t endure their violation nor can he forgive an infraction without extracting an appropriate penalty. In reality, however, God has no need of Torah. God’s people need Torah to protect their freedom from bondage to all that is less than God. Because “the Sabbath was created for humankind, not humankind for the Sabbath,” Sabbath law (and all the other commandments, statutes and regulations) must be interpreted and applied in ways that are life giving and freeing for God’s people.
The greatest commandment, as Jesus tells us, is first to love God above all and next to love one’s neighbor as oneself. Mark 12:28-31. Because one’s neighbor is created in God’s image, it is impossible to observe either of these commandments without obeying the other. In reality, the two commandments are one. Sometimes obedience to the greatest commandments means that other commandments, even one of the Ten Commandments, must be set aside. Mark 2:23-28. The polestar for interpreting and applying Torah, from Paul’s perspective (and that of Jesus as well), is love for the neighbor. Such love requires one to put oneself into the neighbor’s skin and see the world through the neighbor’s eyes, putting aside all judgment. It is in this context that we need to understand Paul’s remarks about “becoming all things to all people.” Vs 22. It is not that Paul molds his personality, convictions and ethical behavior to conform to the cultural norms governing whatever community in which he happens to find himself. Rather, his preaching and ministry are shaped by his understanding of his hearers, their experience of bondage and their longing for salvation. That is a model of mission and ministry worth emulating.
The messianic authority of Jesus displayed in the synagogue last Sunday with the exorcism of a demon is further illustrated through Jesus’ power over illness. First Century people tended to view illness as a personal force hostile to God’s intent for humanity akin to demon possession. Hence, the similarity between the healing accounts and exorcism stories in the New Testament. Nineham, D.E., Saint Mark, The Pelican New Testament Commentaries (c. 1963 by D.E. Nineham, pub. by Penguin Books, Ltd.) p. 80. The Greek word for “lift up” used to describe Jesus’ taking Peter’s mother-in-law by the hand and raising her up is one typically used in Talmudic literature to mean “cure” or “heal.” Ibid. at 81. That immediately following her healing Peter’s mother-in-law began to serve him and the disciples indicates the swiftness and completeness of the cure. I also believe that it illustrates how the exercise of God’s mercy is intended to enable the recipient to become a channel of God’s goodness to others.
The people come to Jesus at Peter’s home after sundown. As you may recall from last week’s lesson, this was a Sabbath day. The Sabbath ended at sundown, at which time it became permissible to carry the sick through the streets to the place where Jesus was and permissible also for Jesus to perform healings. In addition to healings, Jesus performs more exorcisms, commanding the expelled demons to keep silent about his identity as Israel’s messiah. This “messianic secret” has been the source of much scholarly debate. William Werde, a prominent commentator around the turn of the last century viewed this aspect of Jesus’ teaching as a literary invention of the early church to explain why Jesus was never recognized as messiah during his earthly ministry. Das Messiasgeheimnis in den Evangelien, Göttingen 1901. (Published in English as The Messianic Secret, London 1971). More recent commentators maintain that the secrecy motif goes back to Jesus himself who wished to conceal his messianic identity to prevent its being misunderstood. E.g., Taylor, Vincent, The Gospel According to St. Mark, Thornapple Commentaries (c. 1966 by Vincent Taylor, pub. by Baker Book House Co.); Cranfield, C.E.B., St. Mark, The Cambridge Greek Testament Commentary (c. 1959 by Cambridge University Press).
As Morna Hooker points out, there are problems with both theories. If Jesus himself had been concerned about being misunderstood, it hardly seems likely that he would have chosen a confusing and enigmatic title for himself like “son of man” while performing works that could not help but call attention to himself. Werde’s attribution of these secrecy commands to the early church in order to explain Jesus’ lack of messianic recognition are equally problematic. One of the few so called “historical facts” we can be reasonably sure of is that Jesus was put to death by Rome as a messianic pretender. Thus, whether he sought the title or not, Jesus was clearly thought to have assumed a messianic identity during his lifetime. Hooker, Morna D., The Gospel According to St. Mark, Blacks New Testament Commentaries (c. 1991 by Morna D. Hooker, pub. by Hendrickson Publishers, Inc.) p. 67. Nevertheless, Werde was correct insofar as he pinpoints the resurrection as the turning point in the church’s understanding of Jesus. It is not so much that Jesus’ resurrection caused the disciples to discover Jesus’ messianic identity as that it clarified for them the nature of his messianic mission. “It is not that the Church imposes a messianic interpretation on to a non-messianic life and death: rather, in light of Easter faith the disciples see events from a new perspective.” Ibid.
The “secret” functions throughout Mark in exactly the opposite way one would expect secrecy to work. Rather than concealing Jesus’ identity, it operates to reveal that identity to Mark’s readers. Jesus’ life, ministry and death remain an enigma and cannot be rightly understood until after he is raised from death. Only as God declares God’s emphatic “yes” to all that Jesus said, did and was can his messianic identity be properly recognized and believed.
Once again, to ask how much of the “secret” can be attributed to the so called “historical Jesus” is to raise a question the apostolic authors would neither have understood nor cared about. The peculiar belief that there exists a pure and objective history, unsullied by human interpretation and accessible to empirical historical critical investigation, is a relic of 19th Century thinking. Even what we observe with our own eyes is interpreted by layers of meaning we have accumulated through a lifetime of experience. So the question is not whether the gospel accounts comport with some non-existent objective historical standard, but rather whether the apostolic witness is a reliable testimony to who Jesus was and what he did for us. That question cannot be answered by any amount of historical critical research.
Following this Sabbath evening of healing, Jesus arose early in the morning and went out to pray. The readers of Mark’s gospel, who knew the Jesus story well, would probably make the connection between this “arising” and Jesus’ rising from death early on the morning of the first day of the week. In Mark there is no resurrection appearance of Jesus nor any account of the Great Commission if we accept (as I think we must) the ending of Mark’s gospel at Mark 16:8. Yet it has been persuasively argued that Mark’s resurrection encounter appears at the center of his gospel in his story of the Transfiguration. Perhaps in the light of Easter we can recognize in Jesus’ invitation for his disciples to follow him in declaring the good news to other towns and villages throughout Galilee and in the giving of the Great Commission.
FOURTH SUNDAY OF ADVENT
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.
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.
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 12:35-40; Matthew 22:41-46; Luke 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.
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.
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’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
THIRD SUNDAY OF ADVENT
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, 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.
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 3:10; Judges 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.
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 19:30; Matthew 20:16; Mark 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.
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.
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.
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.
“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!
“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.
When doing good doesn’t do any good; a poem by Julia Spicher Kasdorf; and the lessons for Sunday, November 26, 2017
CHRIST THE KING
PRAYER OF THE DAY: O God of power and might, your Son shows us the way of service, and in him we inherit the riches of your grace. Give us the wisdom to know what is right and the strength to serve the world you have made, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.
One of my favorite hymns begins with a question: “O Christ, what can it mean for us to claim you as our king?” See Lutheran Worship, (C. 2006 by Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, pub. By Augsburg Fortress Publishers) Hymn # 431. The question is difficult on a number of different levels. As an American, I chafe at the very idea of having a king. After all, didn’t we fight the revolutionary war to rid ourselves of a king? I don’t fancy being governed by a leader whose authority cannot be questioned, who cannot be voted out or impeached and who calls me to lay down my life for the kingdom. Our attitude toward kingly authority is perhaps best expressed by the sentiment I have recently seen expressed on so many toddler tee shirts: “You’re not the boss of me.” Nothing stimulates the testosterone quite like having somebody else try to tell us what to do with our lives. Yet that is precisely what Jesus does. Our lives, he tells us, are not our own. They belong to our heavenly Father and they can never be lived well until reconciled to his will. We prefer Burger King telling us that we can “have it our way,” to Christ the King who tells that our way leads to self-destruction.
More difficult than getting past the very idea of a king is coming to grips with the kind of king Jesus is. His life and ministry was anything but kingly. Kings get things done. That’s one advantage of being ruled by a king. King’s don’t have to bother with congress or worry about courts striking down their orders. Because they don’t stand for election, they don’t have to take the temperature of public opinion before they act. They can build bridges, drain swamps, fight wars and make the trains run on time in whatever way they see fit. Of course, there is a price to be paid for autocracy. As the lesson from Ezekiel demonstrates, kings frequently put their own interests above those of the people. They abuse their power. They can be cruel, ruthless and unjust. But what if you could find a king that really does love his people, who puts the common good above his own interests and who rules with justice and equity? What if you found a person with integrity so deep seated that s/he could not be moved by any bribe, threat or self-serving interest? If such a person were to exist, wouldn’t you gladly accept them as king?
In many respects, Jesus seems to fit the bill. Yet when offered the opportunity to reign as king, not merely over Israel but over the whole world, Jesus rejected it. Putting to one side the fact that the offer was made by the devil, wouldn’t it have been better for all of us if Jesus had accepted it? Think of how much good could be accomplished with Jesus controlling the levers of power rather than the likes of Emperor Caligula or Donald Trump! Jesus, however, will not take up the sword of empire, not even for the sake of his Father’s kingdom. The only weapons Jesus employs are words of liberation, healing, compassion and forgiveness. His only military strategy is victory through reconciliation. His only plan for achieving peace is peace itself. These methods usually are not politically effective. In fact, they might undermine our political efforts to affect needed social change. Politics is, after all, the art of the possible. Truth is often the first casualty in the political process. The language of diplomacy requires “incidental falsehoods.” For example, it may well be essential to American strategic alliances and to such noble objectives as achieving peace in the middle east to avoid official recognition of the Armenian Genocide of a century ago. Don’t the lives and wellbeing of people today trump recognition of people who have been dead 100 years? Can’t we find a way to honor the Armenian victims “under the table” while ignoring them-for strategic and humanitarian purposes-in the room where the sausage is made? Perhaps the day will come when the whole truth can be told-but not today.
Jesus will not settle for a peace that buries the truth. He won’t tolerate false narratives and he will not give way to the Nieburian siren song promising that the ends will justify the means-a rationalization we are all too prone to adopt. We can mock the Trumpian evangelicals all we want for supporting a pedophile like Roy Moore and a molester like Donald Trump because, after all, they support their moral agenda (which evidently does not include protection of women and girls from predatory males). But their rank hypocrisy only illustrates the end stage of the same path we so called progressives take when we turn a blind eye to the antisemitism of our allies in the struggle against Israeli aggression in the occupied territories. The desire to accomplish a great good and to see it done within one’s lifetime is hard to resist. That is why pastors and congregational leaders turn to coercive techniques when they are desperate to get programs off the ground or projects completed. It is also why Christians who seek to shape law and policy for the better frequently find themselves morally compromised. We can’t resist the temptation to grab the levers of power and use them to make history come out right. Like Peter in the Garden of Gethsemane, we cannot bear to watch evil prevail and do nothing. Yes, turn the other cheek, but not now! Not under these extreme circumstances! The greater good of preventing such a travesty of justice as Jesus’ arrest excuses the limited use of the sword.
I don’t think this means necessarily that disciples of Jesus cannot engage in politics. I do think, however, that we might find we are not very good at it. It seems to me that a believing politician has to be willing to lose an election that, with the backing of a little money in exchange for an inconsequential vote or two, s/he might otherwise win. A Christian legislator may have to let a proposal for hunger relief, protections for civil rights or some other very worthy cause go down in defeat-if the cost of success means voting once again to bury the Armenian Genocide. A disciple of Jesus must never forget that no end, however noble, can justify unjust means for achieving it, but that the means always shape the ends in ways we cannot foresee. Following Jesus in the realm of politics is a daunting task requiring much integrity, honesty and humility. No wonder Martin Luther once remarked that a good prince is a rare bird.
Discipleship, in any area of life, means accepting the cruel fact that doing good might not do much good-but we do it anyway because it is what Jesus would have us do and it readies us for life under God’s reign of peace-whenever in God’s own good time it comes. Disciples of Jesus understand that while they must witness to and live under God’s gentle reign, none but God can bring it about. God does that very thing through patient, suffering love that will not allow for any shortcuts. That is the only weapon King Jesus wields and the only one with which we are armed. Following Jesus, then, most often means doing small, seemingly inconsequential acts of mercy, justice and peace on a day to day basis without stopping to consider whether it is accomplishing anything. It means taking up the cross and leaving the resurrection to God. Here is a poem by Julia Kasdorf that speaks of faithful discipleship, its challenges, costs and rewards.
We keep our quilts in closets and do not dance.
We hoe thistles along fence rows for fear
we may not be perfect as our Heavenly Father.
We clean up his disasters. No one has to
call; we just show up in the wake of tornadoes
with hammers, after floods with buckets.
Like Jesus, the servant, we wash each other’s feet
twice a year and eat the Lord’s Supper,
afraid of sins hidden so deep in our organs
they could damn us unawares,
swallowing this bread, his body, this juice.
Growing up, we love the engravings in Martyrs Mirror:
men drowned like cats in burlap sacks,
the Catholic inquisitors,
the woman who handed a pear to her son,
her tongue screwed to the roof of her mouth
to keep her from singing hymns while she burned.
We love Catherine the Great and the rich tracts
she gave us in the Ukraine, bright green winter wheat,
the Cossacks who torched it, and Stalin,
who starved our cousins while wheat rotted
in granaries. We must love our enemies.
We must forgive as our sins are forgiven,
our great-uncle tells us, showing the chain
and ball in a cage whittled from one block of wood
while he was in prison for refusing to shoulder
a gun. He shows the clipping from 1916:
Mennonites are German milksops, too yellow to fight.
We love those Nazi soldiers who, like Moses,
led the last cattle cars rocking out of the Ukraine,
crammed with our parents–children then–
learning the names of Kansas, Saskatchewan, Paraguay.
This is why we cannot leave the beliefs
or what else would we be? why we eat
‘til we’re drunk on shoofly and moon pies and borscht.
We do not drink; we sing. Unaccompanied on Sundays,
those hymns in four parts, our voices lift with such force
that we lift, as chaff lifts toward God.
Source: Sleeping Preacher (c. Julia Kasdorf 1992, pub. by University of Pittsburgh Press) Julia Kasdorf (b. 1962) is a Poet, essayist, and editor. She was born in Lewistown, Pennsylvania and received her BA from Goshen College. She earned an MA in creative writing and a PhD from New York University. She is the editor for the journal, Christianity and Literature and author of several books of poetry. You can find out more about Julia Kasdorf and read more of her poetry at the Poetry Foundation website.
Though a prophet and critic of Judah’s cultic and religious practices, Ezekiel appears to have been of priestly lineage being intimately connected to the temple in Jerusalem and its worship. Ezekiel’s eccentric behavior, lurid visions and obscene imagery have discomforted both his Jewish and Christian interpreters. According to some Jewish traditions, the study of Ezekiel’s prophecies was restricted to men over the age of thirty. Ezekiel was a contemporary of Jeremiah. But whereas Jeremiah’s ministry took place in Jerusalem during and immediately after its final conquest and destruction by the Babylonians in 587 B.C.E., Ezekiel preached among the exiles deported to Babylon ten years earlier in 597 B.C.E. Like Jeremiah, Ezekiel viewed Jerusalem’s destruction as God’s judgment for her unfaithfulness. Judgment, however, is not Ezekiel’s final word. The book of his oracles ends with a glorious vision of a restored Jerusalem and a new temple from which rivers of healing water transform the land of Israel into an Eden-like paradise. The parallels between this vision (Ezekiel 40-48) and that of John of Patmos in Revelation 21-22 suggest inspiration of the latter by the former. For further general information on the Book of Ezekiel, see Summary Article by Dr. Alan Padgett, Professor of Systematic Theology at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, MN on enterthebible.org.
Sunday’s passage is part of a larger section constituting all of Chapter 34. In verses 1-2, Ezekiel launches into a diatribe against “the shepherds of Israel.” The reference is to the Kings of Judah and Israel whose oppressive, self-centered and short-sighted policies lead to their nations’ demise. These kings/shepherds have put their own interests ahead of the flock, feeding their appetites as the sheep starve, wander away and become scattered. The prophet would have the exiles know that, as far as God is concerned, “enough is enough.” “I, I myself will search for my sheep and will seek them out.” Vs. 11. God will bring the people of Israel back from all the places to which they have been exiled. God himself will feed them and give them security from their enemies. Vss. 12-16. If you want a job done right, you have to do it yourself!
The kings are not solely responsible for Israel’s plight, however. In the absence of proper leadership and oversight, covenant life within the Lord’s flock has given way to the law of the jungle. The oppression of the monarchy is reflected in the oppression of the weak by the strong. Thus, God addresses the flock as well. “Behold, I, I myself will judge between the fat sheep and the lean sheep. Because you push with the side and shoulder, and thrust at all the weak with your horns, till you have scattered them abroad, I will save my flock, they shall no longer be a prey; and I will judge between sheep and sheep.” Vss. 20-22. For reasons known only to the inner circle of the lectionary makers, Verses 17-19 have been omitted from our reading. They expand further on this same theme.
In verses 23-24 God announces that he will set up over the people “my servant David, and he shall feed them; he shall feed them and be their shepherd.” Vs. 20. This is a little confusing. God has only just announced that God himself would be Israel’s shepherd, whereas now God announces that David (presumably a descendent) will have the job. These two notions are not necessarily contradictory, however, “for in the theology of Jerusalem the Davidic kings were an extension of Yahweh’s kingship.” Lemke, Werner E., “Life in the Present and Hope for the Future,” Interpretation, (Vol. 38, 2, 1984) p. 174. In addition to the term “shepherd” Ezekiel refers to the new David as a “prince” (Hebrew=nisi). The literal translation of this word is “exalted one,” a term that originated in the ancient Israelite tribal league existing prior to the rise of the monarchy. Ibid. Perhaps Ezekiel is deliberately avoiding the use of the Hebrew word for “king” (melech) because he wishes to make clear that this new David is not to be thought of as just a continuation of the dismal performance of his predecessors.
Ezekiel strikes a resonant chord. The blind embrace and elevation to leadership of known sexual predators to the highest offices in the land speaks both to the sickness of our governmental institutions and the perversity of the angry, white mob that is working hard to dismantle them. Somehow, we ended up with a president that is so mentally unstable that his generals are actually discussing how to handle the eventuality that he might fire off a nuke in a fit of pique as casually as he does his ill-considered tweets. The inability of our current leadership to govern, to unite the country or enact a coherent policy agenda comports with Ezekiel’s image of Israel’s self-serving “shepherds” whose inept leadership has impoverished and scattered the sheep.
Nonetheless, we cannot lay the blame of all our woes on our leadership. Unlike the unfortunate people of North Korea who inherited their bellicose, narcissistic, man-baby, we elected ours. The low approval ratings of our president, congress and judiciary are symptomatic of a general loss of faith in leadership. When we continue to vilify the establishment, characterize career politicians as crooked and dishonest, should it come as any surprise that fewer and fewer honorable people are seeking public office? When honorable people are so repelled by public service that they avoid or resign from it, who is left? Exhibit A can be found in Washington, D.C.-when he is not in Mara Lago. We must accept the fact that Donald Trump is in large part the product of our own selfishness and cynicism.
There are two observations I would make in this connection. The first has to do with the limits of human capacity for wise leadership. Few can bear the weight of the crown without being corrupted by it. Even fewer have the maturity, insight and moral courage to envision a good larger than their own parochial interests. That is why, I believe, Israel’s hope for salvation eventually turned away from reliance upon human leaders. The crown belongs to God alone. The Christian faith confesses that God became human in the person of Jesus Christ and received that crown to which every knee must finally bend. Yet this king will not have us bend in terror or under duress. He seeks obedience from the heart-something that must be won not through force of arms, but through faithful, suffering, enduring love that outlasts our distrustful resistance.
That leads me to the second observation. We are not yet a people capable of being led. The image of ourselves as sheep under the care of a shepherd does not play well in a culture of individualism like our own. We value our right to be our own person, make our own decisions and believe what we choose. While I have no problem with the state affording us these prerogatives, I am not convinced that we can hang onto them as we enter into the Body of Christ. It seems to me that the language of rights is foreign to and inadequate for defining life under our baptismal covenant with Jesus in the church. I believe one of the major flaws in American Protestantism is our penchant for organizing ourselves, whether nationally or as congregations, by means of constitutions that speak the language of rights rather than the language of covenant. We are, after all, a people who follow a king who reigns through laying down his kingly prerogatives and refusing to exercise his rights to self-defense, retribution and self-determination.
This is one of about twenty psalms thought to be associated with an enthronement festival for Israel’s God held in the fall, during which time worshipers made a pilgrimage to Jerusalem celebrating God’s triumph over all powers hostile to his rule. Anderson, Bernard W., Out of the Depths-The Psalms Speak for Us Today, (c. 1983, Bernard W. Anderson, pub. The Westminster Press) p. 175. The festival may have been patterned after rites common among Israel’s neighbors, such as the feast of akitu where the Babylonian creation myth, Enuma elish, was recited and re-enacted. Ibid. 176. However that might be, there is a critical difference between typical near eastern mythology on the one hand which tended to reflect and legitimate the imperial infrastructure, and Israel’s salvation narrative on the other hand acclaiming Yahweh as Lord. The difference is borne out by the fact that Israel’s worship outlasted her dynastic existence whereas the Babylonian and Canaanite religions died along with their empires.
Whatever its origins, Psalm 95 in its present state is obviously composed for use in public worship. It opens with an invitation for all Israel to worship God, not merely as creator, but as the God who is its “rock of salvation.” Vss. 1-2. Verses 3-5 declare that the whole of creation belongs to the Lord who is “a great king above all gods.” This might well be an ancient worship formula from a period of time when Israel acknowledged the existence of other deities, though always subject to Yahweh, her Lord. Nevertheless, its use in later Judaism functioned as a denial of even the existence of such gods. Vss 7b to 11 (not in our lesson) refer back to the narrative from our Exodus lesson as a warning to Israel. The worshipers must learn from the faithless conduct of their ancestors and its dire consequences not to be rebellious, disobedient and unbelieving.
The psalm is an illustration of just how important the narratives of God’s salvation history with Israel were for her worship and piety. The ancient stories of the wilderness wanderings were not dead history for Israel. They were and continue to be paradigms of covenant life in which Israel is challenged each and every day with God’s invitation to trust his promises and with the temptation to unbelief and rebellion. So, too, as the church year draws to a close, we prepare to begin anew the narrative of Jesus’ incarnation, ministry, death and resurrection through the eyes of Mark’s gospel. This story, as it is enhanced and enriched through the prism of our weekly readings, illuminates and informs the real life choices that are ever before us. We see ourselves in the tentative response of the disciples as they follow Jesus and finally betray, deny and abandon him. More significantly, we recognize our own new beginning in the resurrected Christ who seeks out his failed disciples and calls them to a new beginning.
For a brief introduction to the Letter to the Ephesians, see Summary Article by Mary Hinkle Shore, Associate Professor of New Testament at Luther Seminary, St. Paul, MN at enterthebible.org.
This remarkable passage consists of one single sentence in the original Greek. The Old Revised Standard Version retains the sentence structure making it impossible to read this lesson from the lectern without hyperventilating. Thankfully, the New Revised Standard Version used for our readings has broken this passage down into bite size pieces. A preacher could generate more than a dozen sermons trying to unpack this profound expression of the mystery of faith.
I believe that this passage from Ephesians is a wonderful (if tightly packed, layered and condensed) statement of what Jesus’ ascension to the right hand of the Father means. It is therefore appropriate for the celebration of the reign of Christ. The right hand of the Father is everywhere there is and, consequently, so is Jesus. The church is described as “the fullness of him who fills all in all.” Vs. 23. That is a bold statement. It says a great deal more than that Jesus is a revelation of God or God’s will. It says more than that Jesus is an exemplar, an expression of God’s image which might be found in any exemplary person who is, after all, created in God’s image. Jesus lives not merely as an idea, but as the glue that holds the universe together and the means by which God is bringing all things into submission to God’s will. The telos (Greek word for “end” or “purpose”) of the world is Jesus. To follow Jesus is to go with the grain of the universe. To go against him is to cut against that grain, to be on the wrong side of nature and history.
In a recent article published by the New York Times, James Carroll wrote: “Yet Jesus Christ is the point of all the smells, bells, rules and dogma; the point, finally, of being Catholic. Ironically, the failures of the church make that point with power, for it is when one dares imagine the deliberate act of lapsing that the image of Jesus Christ snaps into foreground focus. Here, perhaps, is the key to Pope Francis’s astounding arrival, for beyond all matters of style, doctrine and behavior, he is offering a sure glimpse of a fleeting truth about the faith: The man on his knees washing the feet of the tired poor is the Son of God.
“Francis is pointing more to that figure than to himself, or even to the church, which is why institution-protecting conservatives are right to view him with alarm. For this pope, the church exists for one reason only — to carry the story of Jesus forward in history, and by doing that to make his presence real. Everything else is rubrics.” James Carroll, “Jesus and the Modern Man,” New York Times, November 7, 2014.
What Carroll has said here about the Roman Catholic Church is every inch as true for American Protestant denominations. We are nothing if not “institution-protecting.” The precipitous decline in membership and support we have experienced in the last two decades (and before if we had been paying attention) has only exacerbated and raised to panic level this self-defeating behavior. In some respects, this takes us back to the whole question of leadership raised by our lesson from Ezekiel. The leader we desperately need is one that can point us beyond our angst over institutional decline to the figure of Jesus. Jesus alone can give us the courage to die and, paradoxically, the promise of life.
Professor Nolland suggests that the reading for Sunday was originally a parable by Jesus about a king who entered into judgment with his people, but has been progressively allegorized by the early church to the point where it has become an account of the final judgment rather than a parable. Nolland, John, The Gospel of Matthew, The New International Greek Testament Commentary (c. 2008 by Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.) p. 1024. I trust there is no need for me to repeat my skepticism about scholarship seeking the so-called “Historical Jesus” behind the gospel witness as we have it. I nevertheless agree with Nolland’s literary judgment that this story is not a parable. It is, as he points out, the climactic conclusion to the parables of the Ten Maidensand The Talents. Ibid. at 1022. Whereas the preceding parables stressed preparedness and faithfulness, the story of the final judgment paints in stark relief that for which the disciples must prepare and the shape their faithfulness must take.
The image of the Son of man separating the people of the nations as a shepherd separates sheep from goats faintly echoes our lesson from Ezekiel. As the reign of the new David in Ezekiel was to be an extension of God’s just and merciful reign, so also the Son of Man is an extension of God’s presence in judgment and salvation. A shepherd might separate the sheep from the goats in his flock for any number of reasons, one being that goats need protection from cold at night not required for sheep. Ibid. at 1026. It would be a mistake, however, to read more into the shepherd’s reasoning than is required to make sense of the story. It is enough to know that such separation was common and so a useful image for the separation to be made finally of those recognized by the Son of Man from those not so recognized.
The point of the story turns on the failure of both the sheep and the goats to recognize the significance of their actions/inactions. The story is both a judgment on the nations of the world for whom divinity is wrapped up in imperial might and worship given to the symbols of Roman power as well as encouragement to the church whose acts of compassion toward “the least” is in fact the highest possible service to the one true God. The way of patronage that advances one upward through the hierarchical strata of Roman society turns out to have been tragically misguided. When the true “king” arrives, the contacts required to win his favor will turn out to have been the very folks we go out of our way to avoid: the homeless, hungry, sick, naked, imprisoned and abandoned.
My Lutheran associates often get hung up on this text because it appears to advocate salvation by works rather than by God’s grace. Caring for the poor and hungry becomes the basis for salvation rather than faith in Jesus. Nothing could be further from the case. If works had been the basis of their salvation, the sheep would not have been so clueless about their acts of kindness to the Son of Man. Because they have been shaped by their friendship with Jesus in the baptismal community called church, their works are not their own. They simply flow from their living relationship to Jesus as naturally as breathing. Their left hand knows not what their right hand is doing. See Matthew 6:3.
Nonetheless, I have often wondered whether this story is not as much a rebuke to the sheep as to the goats. In his book, Toxic Charity, Robert D. Lupton shows how good-intentioned Christians are actually harming the people they are trying to help. Too many efforts to help the poor actually make the poor feel judged, looked down upon, only worthy of charity and handouts. The tendency is to see these people as “social problems” that need our help rather than valued persons deserving honor, respect and friendship. Lupton, Robert D., Toxic Charity, (c. 2011 by Robert D. Lupton, pub. by HarperCollins Publishers).
Perhaps the sheep could use some help recognizing their King in the faces of those for whom they are caring. Acts of charity can be and are done by Christians and non-Christians alike. Anyone can feed the hungry, but only the church can invite them to the messianic banquet. Anyone can show genuine compassion to someone in need. But only a disciple of Jesus can recognize in such a person the presence of Jesus. It is just this recognition that “the least” are not “social problems” needing a solution, but rather “the treasure of the church,” as St. Lawrence would say, that distinguishes friendship with the marginalized from toxic charity. The “least” are, in fact, priceless invitations to deeper intimacy with Jesus.
On this Sunday of Christ the King, we are asked what it means for us to be subjects of a King whose nearest associates are the hungry, the poor, the naked and the imprisoned. Taken seriously, discipleship as Matthew envisions it turns our social/economic/political world on its head.
Caught unprepared; a poem by Lizzette Woodworth Reese; and the lessons for Sunday, November 12, 2017
TWENTY-THIRD SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST
PRAYER OF THE DAY: O God of justice and love, you illumine our way through life with the words of your Son. Give us the light we need, and awaken us to the needs of others, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.
The same reoccurring dream has haunted my sleep since college days. The end of the semester is drawing near. Exams will be held in a couple of weeks. But there is one class I have neglected. Somehow, I managed not to show up for class more than a few times. I have not kept up with assignments. I just never took the course very seriously. Now, just days away from the final exam, I realize that I am in deep trouble. There is virtually no chance that I can absorb sufficient knowledge and understanding to score high enough on the final to offset a semester of inattention and neglect. How could I have let this happen? What can I possibly do to remedy the situation? Of course, these are rhetorical questions. I know that I will simply have to face the final exam woefully unprepared. It is usually at this point that I wake up in a state of agitation.
I suspect that the bridesmaids in Jesus’ parable felt much the same way when they discovered that their lamps had burned dry. How foolish of us! We should have seen this coming. What wedding doesn’t suffer a few snafus? When does the groom ever arrive at the church on time? It would have been so easy to prevent all of this simply by bringing a little extra oil. Now it seems there are no good options. We can’t expect our companions to put their preparedness in jeopardy to bail us out. They will tell us, and rightfully so, that a lack of planning on our end does not constitute an emergency on theirs. Running into town to purchase more oil is not likely to get us into the wedding procession on time, but it’s the only alternative left. Unlike me, the bridesmaids do not wake up in a cold sweat and discover, much to their relief, that the whole drama was just a bad dream. Instead, they arrive at the wedding hall to find the door locked.
Maybe it is because I have always been anal about getting things done on time, keeping my calendar up to date and planning for every conceivable contingency that few things frighten me more than finding myself unprepared at a critical time. And that fear persists because I know in my heart of hearts that there is no way to ensure that I will never find myself unprepared for whatever is to come. Through disciplined saving, sound financial advice and plain dumb luck, Sesle and I find ourselves now at that nirvana known as “financial security.” That is to say, we can retire comfortably without having to worry about finding ourselves destitute in our old age-assuming the world-wide financial system does not collapse, ecological catastrophe does not render much of the earth uninhabitable, someone does not decide to walk into our church and gun us down, my next visit to the doctor does not reveal an acute terminal condition, I do not become the victim of an accident on Route 208 during my daily drive from Midland Park to Bogota-you get the picture. There really is no such thing as security. There is no failsafe means of preparing for tomorrow. That is what my dreams are telling me.
Perhaps that, too, is the point of our lessons this week. The prophet Amos must warn the people of Israel that they are not prepared for “the day of the Lord” for which they hope. It has never occurred to them that their wealth might not be a blessing from God, but rather the foul fruit of unjust exploitation of the poor. They never dreamed that the “god we trust” stamped on their coins and who is worshiped as the patron god of the nation is, in fact, no god at all but the projection of their nationalistic fantasies. The people never dreamed that there was any conflict between being a loyal, patriotic citizen and a follower of the God of the covenant. And because they could not distinguish between the god of their imaginings and the God who liberates slaves from the house of bondage, champions the orphan and the widow and defends the poor, the “day of the Lord” turns out to be not a day of glory and salvation, but a day of judgment and calamity.
In our lesson from I Thessalonians, Paul writes to encourage a congregation that has all but given up on the day of the Lord. They have waited long enough and are beginning to wonder whether the way things are is as good as things ever will be. What is the point in preparing when the end for which you are told to prepare has been indefinitely, if not permanently, postponed? Truth is, we are not ready to meet the Lord, nor do we have what it takes to go the distance until Jesus is revealed in glory.
Of course, the good news is that, although we are not ready to “meet the Lord in the air” as St. Paul puts it, the Lord is ready to meet us. The lessons for this week, like my nightmares, are reminders that we will never be properly prepared. We will never manage to tie up all the loose ends in our professional lives, our relationships and our own hearts, even if we live past one hundred. In the end, we must leave to God the task of redeeming the world, bringing to birth a new heaven and a new earth and somehow weaving the frayed fabric of our lives into God’s glorious future. That very thing, Paul promises, God intends to do. So we can bring our unfinished business, the mess we have made of our lives and the incurable wounds we have inflicted on others and on ourselves to God in confession certain that all will be forgiven. Oddly enough, we find ourselves best prepared to meet the Lord once we recognize that we are unprepared and cannot possibly get ourselves prepared by way of our own stratagems. Only then does true preparation begin.
And there is still more good news. The end is not yet. As we look forward to the season of Advent, we are reminded that God gives us time for preparation, time for anticipation, time to turn away from what doesn’t matter to the things that do. There is still time to do important work for God’s kingdom. There is still time to work for justice, there is still time to make peace, there is still time for reconciliation and forgiveness, still time to witness to God’s love for the world in Jesus Christ. Each day we are given is holy and it matters greatly what we do with it. The works of compassion, mercy, peace and justice are eternal and will outlast the works of violence that seem to nullify them. In the end, our life and work fall into the hands of a God who, Paul tells us, promises to bring to completion what we can hardly begin.
Here is a poem by Lizzette Woodworth Reese. She speaks of faithful existence in much the same way as does Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount, illustrating a preparedness that calls for no preparation.
I am thy grass, O Lord!
I grow up sweet and tall
But for a day; beneath Thy sword
To lie at evenfall.
Yet have I not enough
In that brief day of mine?
The wind, the bees, the wholesome stuff
The sun pours out like wine.
Behold, this is my crown;
Love will not let me be;
Love holds me here; Love cuts me down;
And it is well with me.
Lord, Love, keep it but so;
Thy purpose is full plain;
I die that after I may grow
As tall, as sweet again.
Source: She Wields a Pen: American Women Poets of the Nineteenth Century (University of Iowa Press, 1997). Lizzette Woodworth Reese (1856–1935) was born in Waverly, Maryland. Her father was a confederate soldier and her mother a German immigrant. She taught English in the Baltimore school system for almost fifty years. Reese published nine volumes of poetry, two memoirs and one autobiographical novel. She was named poet laureate of Maryland in 1931 and co-founded the Women’s Literary Club of Baltimore, serving as its poetry chair until her death. You learn more about Lizzetta Woodworth Reese and sample more of her poetry at the Poetry Foundation Website.
The prophet Amos had two strikes against him. First off, he was not properly ordained according to ecclesiastical guidelines. Second, he was a foreigner and we all know how people feel about them. Now to be perfectly clear, Amos was not altogether foreign to the Northern Kingdom of Israel to which he preached. He was a native of the Southern Kingdom of Judah. Recall that Israel and Judah were both descendants of the twelve tribes of Israel that came up out of Egypt. They had once been a single nation under the reign of David and then Solomon. After the death of Solomon, the kingdom split. Thus, the north and the south, despite their political differences, shared a common ancestry, language and faith in Israel’s God. For more general information on the Book of the Prophet Amos, see Summary Article by Rolf Jacobson, professor at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, M.N.
In our lesson for Sunday Amos delivers a scathing condemnation of Israel’s religious aspirations and practices. In verses 18-20 he mocks the peoples’ desire for the coming of the “Day of the Lord.” This term is common throughout both the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament. From ancient times, it referred generally to a time of judgment in which Israel would be vindicated against her enemies. As such, the Day of the Lord was understood as a day of salvation. But the prophets, beginning with Amos, gave the term a whole new twist. To be sure, the Day of the Lord is to be a day for God to triumph over his foes. These foes, however, are not the enemies of Israel but Israel herself! To be sure, the Day of the Lord brings the establishment of justice-but that is hardly good news for an unjust people. Consequently, the peoples’ yearning for the Day of the Lord as deliverance from their enemies is misplaced. The Day of the Lord will not be what Israel hopes for and expects. It is, says Amos, “as if a man fled from a lion, and a bear met him.” Vs. 19. For an oppressive and unjust nation, the Day of the Lord is “darkness and not light,” “gloom with no brightness in it.” Vs. 20.
In verses 21-24 Amos, speaking in the voice of the Lord, takes the people to task for the emptiness of their worship. Israel was undergoing something of a religious revival at the time of Amos. The worship of Israel’s God, once driven underground and nearly eradicated under the reign of Ahab and his queen, Jezebel, was restored under the leadership of Jehu. II Kings 10:1-31. Under the prosperous reign of Jehu’s descendent, Jeroboam II, Israel’s fortunes took a turn for the better both commercially and militarily. While the people understood their newfound peace and prosperity as signs of God’s favor, Amos took a very different view. The peace was maintained by means of militaristic adventures and prosperity was unevenly spread. The royal and aristocratic classes accumulated wealth through unjust and oppressive economic measures that kept many if not most of the common people in desperate poverty. Thus, Amos chided the leading citizens with these words:
For three transgressions of Israel,
and for four, I will not revoke the punishment;
because they sell the righteous for silver,
and the needy for a pair of sandals—
they who trample the head of the poor into the dust of the earth,
and push the afflicted out of the way;
father and son go in to the same girl,
so that my holy name is profaned;
they lay themselves down beside every altar
on garments taken in pledge;
and in the house of their God they drink
wine bought with fines they imposed.
Naturally, God is offended when these folks, who have enslaved their own people, come into the sanctuary singing hymns to the God of the Exodus, the God that liberated his enslaved people from Egypt. Such empty and hypocritical worship makes God sick to God’s divine stomach! Let the justice about which you sing find expression in your life as a people, says the prophet. Vs. 24.
As we approach the Thanksgiving Day holiday on which it is customary to give thanks for “all our many blessings,” we might do well listening to Amos rather than to the mythology of the Pilgrims, manifest destiny and the heresy of American particularism. What we characterize as “blessings” are more accurately described as “privileges” maintained at a terrible cost to the rest of the planet and its people. Does God really want credit for the horrifying geopolitical arrangements that keep one third of this world’s peoples in poverty in order to preserve “our way of life”? Does God’s divine stomach not turn when we invoke God’s name to mislabel our plundered booty as God’s blessings? Is not such thanksgiving a farce?
To further complicate matters, the line between the God and Father of Jesus Christ and the generic god referenced on our money and in the pledge of allegiance becomes even more blurred on Thanksgiving than it usually is. Similarly, the distinction between God’s chosen people Israel and God’s church on the one hand, and the myth of America as somehow divinely established and favored on the other all but disappears. What arises out of this queer pagan nationalist mythology seasoned with a dash of Judeo-Christian imagery is rank idolatry. I cannot imagine that Amos (much less Jesus!) would sanction his peoples’ celebration of such a holiday. I am all for giving thanks to God for God’s many blessings. But I want to be sure that I am thanking the God and Father of Jesus Christ for the blessings promised in the Beatitudes we discussed in last week’s post. I am quite sure that our national holiday of Thanksgiving has little to do with either.
This psalm is practically identical to Psalm 40:13-17 discussed in my post from Sunday, January 15, 2017. This is one of those psalms that I find to hard pray-at least from a solely individual standpoint. I don’t have any enemies to speak of. There are probably a few people who don’t care for my company. I know there are a lot of people that might disagree with me on one thing or another. But I am not aware of anyone plotting to destroy me or who wishes me ill fortune. My life has been pretty much enemy free since middle school.
Not everyone is so fortunate, however, and I do not pray the psalms individually. I pray the Psalter along with the entire people of God. I pray along with the Christians in Iraq and Syria who are being murdered and dispossessed. I pray with women and children suffering sexual abuse. I pray with the hungry, the impoverished, the addicted, the homeless and the marginalized. These folks do have enemies and, to that extent the church includes these victims and the church is one Body, their enemies are mine also. I have a direct interest in their vindication in the sight of their enemies and, according to the Psalmist, so does God. The oppression of the righteous calls into question God’s faithfulness to the covenant. So the question is, can I pray this psalm consistent with Jesus’ command to love the enemy?
It is obvious that enemies inflict pain, sometimes permanent bodily and psychic injury. The resulting hurt, outrage and desperation must be given expression. Prayer that is less than honest about these very human realities is not genuine prayer. The psalms teach us to express our whole selves to God-the good, the bad and the ugly. Some of what we feel is rather ugly, mean spirited and unworthy of a disciple of Jesus. Yet leaving all of this stuff unexpressed, denying it and pretending that it does not exist only makes it more dangerous to us and to others. Better express anger, hatred and vengeful thoughts honestly to God in prayer than let them leak out through passive/aggressive behavior or explode into actual violence. When exposed to the light, our wounds can be healed.
But again, where does that leave us when it comes to loving our enemies? Perhaps we need to think more carefully about what we mean by “love.” If love is nothing more than an emotion-and “a second hand” one at that as Tina Turner would put it-one could not realistically expect a rape victim to love his/her tormentor. But I believe Jesus has in mind something a lot more substantial than emotion. For Jesus, love is grounded in the conviction that human beings are created in God’s image and for that reason their lives are sacred. To love God is to love what is made in God’s image. To destroy or injure what is made in God’s image is to blaspheme. Vengeance, as St. Paul points out, belongs solely to God. Romans 12:19. God alone can be trusted to work out the intricacies of retributive justice-which is nearly impossible for those of us whose judgment is skewed by our often exaggerated sense of injury, righteousness and moral certainty. One can express to God anger and the desire for vengeance or retribution, but that is where it ends. If and when retribution is called for, God will deal with it. Instead, Paul counsels us to care for our enemy through concrete acts of mercy, regardless of how we might feel about him/her. Romans 12:20.
Paul is dealing with a pressing pastoral concern here. As I have noted previously, the biblical authors know nothing of an “immortal soul.” The Christian hope is grounded in God’s gracious promise to raise the dead sealed in Jesus’ own resurrection. In Hebrew thought, resurrection was never an individual event. It was the culmination of God’s saving acts at the close of the age inaugurating a new heaven and a new earth. Jesus’ resurrection was seen in just that way as demonstrated in Matthew’s gospel reciting the resurrection of the saints who appeared after Jesus’ crucifixion. See Matthew 27:51-54. That being the case, how is it that believers are still dying and what is their fate, seeing that they have died before the appearing of Jesus in glory?
Paul does not retreat from the Jewish understanding of resurrection. The new age has indeed been inaugurated by Jesus’ death and resurrection. “For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep.” Vs. 14. Jesus is the first fruits of a general resurrection that will be complete when “the Lord himself will descend from heaven.” Vs. 16. Then “the dead in Christ will rise first.” Vs. 16. Those living at that moment “shall be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air…” This is one of the proof texts for the so-called “rapture.” Note, however, that there is no mention here of any “great tribulation,” “antichrist” or “thousand year reign.” In order to fill out the rest of the Left Behind scenario you need to pull a slew of scripture fragments out of their context from other places and cobble them together. Note well that Paul urges the church in Thessalonica to “comfort one another with these words,” not scare the socks off of each other.
The pastoral intent and tone of this section is further underlined by Paul’s concern that the members of his church not “grieve as others do who have no hope.” Vs. 13. Paul does not suggest that disciples of Jesus should not grieve over the loss of a loved one, but only that their grief should not end in despair. I have discovered that it is much easier and a good deal more edifying to preside at funerals taking place in the church surrounded by the symbols of font and altar where the descendant was a person of faith. There is, to be sure, plenty of weeping and sorrow at such funerals. But the tone is altogether different where the mourners are made up of believers and it is understood that we are going to the graveyard to plant a seed, not simply to dispose of a body. It makes all the difference in the world when the climax of the funeral service is the Eucharist celebrated with the angels, archangels and all the company of heaven. There is grief here also, but it is grief in a major key.
This chapter contains three parables dealing in some way with readiness for the close of the age. This Sunday’s parable of the foolish and wise maidens and the third parable about the judgment of the nations (Matthew 25:31-46) are recorded only in Matthew’s gospel. The second parable about the servants and the talents (Matthew 25:14-30) is found also in Luke, but with an additional twist. Luke 19:12-27. The parable of the maidens is difficult to interpret largely because “we have little knowledge of the specifics of wedding customs among first-century Jews, and we do not know how fixed various patterns were.” Nolland, John, The Gospel of Matthew, The New International Greek Testament Commentary (c. 2005 William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.) p. 1004. We know even less about the lanterns that Matthew might have had in mind in his telling of this story. Ibid. It appears most likely that the maidens were emissaries of the bride whose responsibility it was to meet the bridegroom and accompany him to the place where he would claim his bride. There the celebration would begin with all going in together to partake of the festivities.
Once again, the wedding feast is a common and powerful biblical metaphor for the kingdom of heaven. The focus is on the maidens with whom the disciples of Jesus are called to identify. The delay of the bridegroom in this story has frequently led some scholars to conclude that the parable is a product of Matthew’s church rather than the so-called “historical Jesus.” The rationale for this conclusion is that the church must have been struggling with the crisis of the delay in Christ’s second coming. E.g, Schweizer, Eduard, The Good News According to Matthew, (c. 1975 John Knox Press) p. 465. Since I believe neither that such a crisis ever occurred in the early church nor that there exists a “historical Jesus” lurking behind the New Testament witness, I take little interest in this sterile speculation. The parable calls the disciple to live simultaneously as though the Kingdom of Heaven might dawn at any instant or as though it might be centuries in coming. The temptation is to gravitate toward one pole to the neglect of the other.
The parable is a reminder that we really don’t know what time it is. End time speculation has demonstrated time and again our inability to discern any divine time table for cosmic history. Except within the last vestiges of American Protestant progressivism, our confident belief in the social evolution of the species toward a democratic world governed by reason has been dashed. It isn’t clear anymore where history is going, if anywhere. We truly know neither the day nor the hour when the kingdom of heaven will come and we can only be confident that it will come because Jesus has promised it. Our only alternative is to stay close to Jesus, being ever transformed within the community that is his Body so that when the kingdom comes, we will be the sort of people capable of embracing it with joy, people who will be recognized by God because God’s image is being restored in us.
What, then, is the fault of the foolish maidens? Only that they were misled by the clock. They wrongly assumed that they knew what time it was. It was not simply that they miscalculated. Their problem was that they thought they could calculate. They imagined that everything would go “as scheduled,” but the schedule turned out to be an illusion. The same error is made whenever the church thinks it has found its niche in society, or discovered God’s direction for history in some social/political/economic movement or ideology. This is not to say that God is not at work in the world outside of the church. To the contrary, God is very much at work. But apart from the church, I don’t have a clue what God is doing and I don’t have much faith in people who claim they do.
Six churches I have loved and what they taught me; A poem by Connie T. Braun; and the lessons for Sunday, October 22, 2017
TWENTIETH SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST
PRAYER OF THE DAY: Sovereign God, raise your throne in our hearts. Created by you, let us live in your image; created for you, let us act for your glory; redeemed by you, let us give you what is yours, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.
It is easy to breeze over the second lesson from Paul’s first letter to the church in Thessalonica. Paul commends the Thessalonian believers for their endurance under difficult circumstances and praises their faith. He encourages them with a recitation of the gospel. Then he tells them how very thankful he is for their church and its witness. It’s the sort of thing you would expect a pastor to write to a former congregation. But is there anything in here meriting reflection? Is there a sermon lurking under these pleasantries?
I believe there is, but it has taken me years to recognize it. Perhaps it is a function of my age, but I have become acutely aware in recent years of just how deeply I have been formed by the congregations of which I have been a part. I was baptized in Memorial Lutheran Church, a Missouri Synod Lutheran congregation in Bremerton, Washington. There I was first exposed to the hymns of the church, the etiquette of liturgical worship and the rhythms of the church year. I learned the Christmas story by participating in the Christmas Eve pageant-first as a back-up to the angel choir, then as an angel proper and finally as a shepherd. That is as far as my acting career went. I never managed to land a speaking part or a coveted role in the holy family.
I learned the Passion story at Memorial’s Wednesday night Lenten services. In lieu of a sermon, we watched film strips accompanied by a vinyl record upon which the phonograph needle had to be strategically placed by the quivering hand of an usher so as to line up with the night’s particular episode. These films, I must confess, left a lot to be desired on many different levels. But they managed to tell the story and, moreover, their coming to an end at the beginning of Holy Week gave us one more reason to rejoice on Easter Sunday. I learned from Memorial Lutheran Church that there is an alternative calendar, a parallel universe of time grounded in the Biblical story of salvation that is nonetheless woven into the fabric of ordinary time making each year holy.
When I was about eleven years old my family, along with several other families and individuals, left Memorial Lutheran Church. This departure was not the result of any falling out or dispute. It was in response to the challenge of our district leadership to begin a mission congregation at the other side of town where new residential communities were popping up like dandelions in springtime. Before we had enough money to purchase land or determine whether the ministry upon which we were embarking was even viable, we named our new venture “Peace Lutheran Church,” called a young pastor fresh out of seminary to lead us and began worshiping in the VFW Hall next to the high school. Over time, we selected a lot overlooking what would become a large shopping mall and community center. Every step of the way presented a new challenge, but somehow, the Lord provided. Our excitement was evidently contagious, because our numbers increased as we continued to worship, dream and build.
It was not always easy going. With no store of past tradition and experience to lead us, it sometimes seemed as though we were learning all over again what it meant to be a church. I like to think that I shared my own adolescence with this young church and that we kind of grew up together. It was during my sojourn at Peace Lutheran Church that I first heard the call of Jesus to the ministry of Word and Sacrament. I learned from Peace that the church is not a static institution, but an organic, mission oriented fellowship that is forever extending its tendrils out into new territory.
During my first year at Seminary, I was assigned to Trinity Lutheran Church in Minneapolis, Minnesota for my mandatory semester of field work. Trinity was a traditional, well established Lutheran congregation-until construction of a new freeway resulted in the condemnation of its sanctuary by eminent domain. Left physically homeless, the congregation soon discovered that it lacked the resources to rebuild in any area where it made sense to build a church. Nonetheless, a core of committed members remained convinced that there was important work to be done on behalf of God’s kingdom in their neighborhood. So the congregation elected to begin renting space in the sanctuary of an old Belgian Catholic parish. Freed from the time, expense and aggravation of maintaining a building, the little congregation was free to focus its energies entirely on mission. Forging relationships with student organizations at nearby University of Minnesota, partnering with tenant rights groups and working ecumenically with neighboring churches, Trinity built a thriving ministry to people of all backgrounds, ages and ethnicities. I grew to love that church so much that I became a member and worshiped there throughout my three years of seminary. I learned from Trinity in Minneapolis that the church is a people, not a building and that congregational life is always more vibrant when mission comes first.
As part of my seminary training, I was required to do a year of internship ministry at a parish under the direction of an ordained minister. Once again, the church I served was called “Trinity,” though this time the sanctuary was located in the Bay Ridge area of Brooklyn, New York. The parish began as an ethnic Norwegian congregation in the pietist tradition. Its first crisis occurred in the 1950s when the English speaking sector of younger congregants eclipsed those who grew up worshiping in Norwegian. After an emotional meeting that left many members in tears, the decision was made to move the Norwegian worship service to a chapel in the church’s basement and yield the sanctuary to the younger English speaking worshipers.
Of course, this was all in the distant past when I arrived. By the time I came on the scene, the new generation of English speaking Lutherans had aged into the old guard. The growing sector of the church came out of what began as a “mission” to the changing neighborhood that worshiped in Spanish. Once again, the complexion of the church was changing and the people of God were struggling to respond faithfully. Enthusiasm for the new thing God was doing burned alongside a deepening sense of loss for what had been. From Trinity in Brooklyn I learned that the Church belongs to Jesus Christ, that it is always being molded for mission and that we can never foresee or control the shape our church will take in the future. Nonetheless, whatever shape the church takes, whatever language its members speak, whatever style of worship they adopt, the church will be exactly the church Jesus needs to do the work of the kingdom at hand.
I have had the privilege of serving three churches as pastor since my ordination in 1982, these being Our Saviour’s Lutheran in Teaneck, Church of the Savior in Paramus and Trinity Lutheran in Bogota (all New Jersey). I think it is more than fair to say that they have taught me a great deal more than I could ever have hoped to teach them. I have learned from my three congregations that the way we go about getting things done is infinitely more important than actually getting things done. I have learned that being the church is far more important than anything the church does. I have learned that getting together on a Sunday morning to hear God’s word and to receive the body and blood of Christ is a really big deal. I have learned that planting seeds in the minds of my members and letting their imaginations run wild is a far more effective leadership model than trying to sell them on the agenda I have concocted-even when I believe in my heart that my agenda is the right one. I have learned that success and failure don’t matter, but that faithfulness is critical.
Occasionally, I have been stabbed in the back by people I trusted to have my back. That goes with the territory. Always, in every crisis I have ever faced, someone in the church has been there to squeeze my hand, give me a hug or a word of encouragement that was just enough to lift my spirits and see me through. That is grace. Time and again, people I had long dismissed as self-absorbed, petty and cruel suddenly performed courageous and selfless acts of compassion that knocked my socks off and forced me to see them in a whole new light. That is a miracle of the Holy Spirit. I have learned through the churches I have served that in every church every individual is there because Jesus has called them. Everyone in every church is there because Jesus has something to teach us that we cannot learn without them. I only hope that I have been able to reflect in my own ministry to these churches some small measure of all they taught me. I can join St. Paul in giving “thanks to God always” for all the congregations that have been so very formative for me.
Poems about congregational life and the role of the church in one’s formation are rare-at least in the American lexicon. The “spiritual but not religious” brand of “me and God” or “me and the great spirit, life force, higher power, etc.” kind of religion is not a new phenomenon. To the contrary, it is deeply ingrained in our individualistic character as a people. There is something deeply and offensively “un-American” about subscribing to a creed or being subject to the teaching authority of any church. Independent people think for themselves. Only weaklings let a church “cram religion down their throats.” Of course, the Bible is authoritative as “God’s word,” but only as long as I get to decide by myself what it means for me. Nevertheless, there has always been a faithful witness within our borders to a way of life in which the individual is not king, in which the common good takes precedence over personal whims and the authority of the Bible is too important to be subjected to the fancy of anyone who takes it upon him/herself to interpret it. That witness, in my own humble opinion, has been most faithfully maintained among our Roman Catholic, Orthodox and Anabaptist communities. These believers understand better than the rest of us that we are not self-made, that we are the product of the families and communities in which we live and that we cannot tell our stories fully and honestly apart from them. Here is a poem by Connie T. Braun expressing that reality.
My Life Cannot be Grasped
“My life cannot be grasped as a singular totality.”
A life cannot be grasped
as a singular totality. The story
of my death can only be told
by others; my beginning, only
by others. My birth belongs
to the history of my parents.
It is the story in the middle
that I will tell. Let me
share it with you, then ask you
if you will tell my ending
after I’m gone, if you will
be the one to tell the story of love.
Source: Unspoken: An Inheritance of Words (Fern Hill Publications, 2016) also published in the Center for Mennonite Writing Journal, Vol. 9, 2017. Connie T. Braun is an author and instructor of Creative Writing. She lives in Vancouver, British Columbia and is an associate member of the League of Canadian Poets, a member of the Canadian Author’s Association and a board member on the literary publications, Prism International and Image Journal.
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.
In this chapter, the prophet makes the startling announcement that Cyrus, emperor of Persia, is his anointed, his “messiah.” The Hebrew word, משיח (Meshiach) “anointed one” or “messiah,” is usually denotes one raised up from within Israel to lead the nation to victory against and enemy. The exiles might be incensed that their God did not raise up a child of Israel to fill the role of savior. But the prophet responds that God’s way of doing things is not to be questioned. The ancient prophecies will be fulfilled in God’s way. God is the master of God’s words, not the servant. Moreover, the Lord’s salvation is not for Israel only. It is for the ends of the earth and all nations which, when they see the miraculous success of Cyrus over them, will come to know that the Lord of Israel is God and that “there is no other.” Vs. 6.
Verses 2-3 give us a fairly accurate description of the success Cyrus has experienced thus far. His armies have advanced with little opposition into territories formerly ruled by Babylon. The prophet indicates that this startling success and lack of opposition Cyrus meets in his conquests is proof positive that the Lord is going before him. According to the prophet, Cyrus will one day recognize the God of Israel as the author of his success, but there is no evidence that he ever did. As has been seen before, God’s calling a person by name establishes a relationship of special ownership. Nevertheless, as much as God is doing for Cyrus, it is not Cyrus and his empire, but Israel who is to be the chief beneficiary of Persia’s campaign.
The prophet reminds his audience that the driving force behind history is neither Cyrus nor their Babylonian captors. Though the empires of the world pursue their own ambitions, agendas and policies, they are the unwitting instruments of Israel’s God who bends their self-serving actions to his own redemptive purpose for Israel and for the nations of the world. As illustrated elsewhere throughout the Book of the Prophet Isaiah, the nations “are like a drop from a bucket, and are accounted as the dust on scales.” Isaiah 40:15. This is a sobering word for a nation that has always fancied itself “the leader of the free world,” “a shining city on a hill,” and has taken on numerous other semi-messianic titles. “Crowns and thrones shall perish, kingdoms wax and wane,” the old hymn tells us. Despite the insistence of Christian nationalists to the contrary (See my post from Sunday, July 26, 2017), the United States is not God’s chosen nation and Americans are not the chosen people. We are just another drop in the bucket.
A good deal of preaching, teaching and programming in the church (liberal, conservative and in between) seems directed at “saving America.” We tend easily to direct the prophets’ invective against social injustice against the U.S. Congress-as though it were answerable to God’s covenant with Israel. Though progressives are loath to suggest that American should be a “Christian” nation, they often point to Jesus in defense or in opposition to certain legislation that has large humanitarian implications. To be sure, Jesus and the prophets tell us that all nations will be judged on the basis of how they have treated their most vulnerable members. The nations of the world are therefore answerable to God for their moral conduct, but that is far different from asserting that the nation as a whole is a covenant partner with standing to claim the promises God offers Israel and the church.
This is important for several reasons, not the least of which is that we are not in a position to know the intent or will of God for the United States or any other nation state. Rev. Franklin Graham insists that God placed Donald Trump in the White House and he might be right about that. It may be that God has determined it is high time this “drop in the bucket” evaporated. It is possible that the United States has become an impediment to whatever God has in mind for the earth’s future. If that’s the case, what better way to bring it to its knees than to put at its head a narcissistic man baby who has never read a book in his life (including his own ghost written autobiography), never held public office and cannot put together a coherent declarative sentence to save his soul. Of course, I don’t know this to be God’s intent and I rather hope it isn’t. But we need, at the very least, to be open to the possibility that the future we desire for our country might have no place in the future God desires for the cosmos. If that is the case, all our efforts to “save America,” whatever that might mean from our respective theological perspectives, are at best vain and at worst obstructionist.
This psalm is included as part of a hymn commissioned by David to celebrate the entry of the Ark of the Covenant into Jerusalem, his newly established capital. Weiser, Artur, The Psalms, A Commentary, (c. 1962 by S.C.M. Press, Ltd) p. 628; See I Chronicles 16:23-33. Scholars do not agree on whether this psalm was composed originally for this occasion. Rogerson, J.W., and McKay, J.W., Psalms 51-100, The Cambridge Bible Commentary (c. 1977 Cambridge University Press) p. 220. The psalm bears some resemblance to enthronement liturgies used to celebrate the crowning of a new Judean king (see, e.g., Psalm 2). These coronation psalms were later adapted and transformed into hymns celebrating the Lord as king of all the earth. As I Chronicles was composed rather late in Israel’s history (after the Exile), it is likely that its author appropriated this psalm into his/her work. Of course, it is also possible that the psalm did in fact have its origin in the annual commemoration of the Ark’s arrival in Jerusalem so that the author of I Chronicles was simply placing the psalm back into its historical context. In either case, the psalm calls upon the nations to acknowledge Israel’s God as God over all the earth.
The psalm calls for a “new song,” (vs. 1) reminding us that Israel’s God is forever doing a “new thing” requiring a fresh expression of praise. It is for this reason that worship must never become mired in the past. Old familiar hymns are fine. But if that is all you ever sing, then you need to ask yourself whether you are properly giving thanks to God for all that is happening in your life today and whether your heart is properly hopeful for the future God promises.
“The gods of the nations are idols.” Vs. 5. If God is God, everything else is not God. An idol is therefore anything that claims to be God or which demands worship, praise and obedience that can only rightfully be demanded by God. The reference in the psalm is obviously to the national gods of rival nations, but idolatry can as well attach to nationalist pride, wealth, political power, human leaders or anything else to which people pay godlike homage.
“Ascribe to the Lord, O families of the peoples…” vs. 7. The psalmist calls upon all nations to worship Israel’s God whose justice and mercy belong to them also. In this hymn Israel is putting into practice her calling to be a light to the nations of the world by calling them to join with all creation in praise of the one true God. This is the way of blessing for all of creation.
According to the Book of Acts, Paul came to Thessalonica on his second missionary journey, somewhere between 40-45 C.E., after having been driven out of Philippi. As was his practice, he visited a synagogue and engaged the congregation in discussions about Jesus as the Messiah for about three weeks. Acts 17:1-3. Some of the Jews and “god-fearing” Greeks were persuaded by Paul’s message. Acts 17:4. The congregational leaders, however, rejected Paul’s preaching and publically accused him of sedition against Rome. These accusations incited a riot against Paul and his new converts. Acts 17:5-9. The new believers escorted Paul out of town for his protection. Acts 17:10-12. I leave to people who care about such things the inconsequential issue of whether the Book of Acts can be relied upon as a historically accurate source. Since our 19th Century notion of “historical accuracy” was not wired into the brains of the New Testament writers and is of limited utility in our 21st Century, I find the question uninteresting. One might as well contemplate how history would have turned out if the Aztecs had developed the atomic bomb. It is clear from the letter itself that there were at least three weighty concerns for the Thessalonican congregation. 1) Paul was forced to leave the congregation early in its development and is concerned that it lacks maturity and solid leadership; 2) Paul’s character, motives and integrity have been challenged by some unknown critics; and 3) church members have theological/pastoral concerns about death and dying.
Our reading consists of the opening chapter of I Thessalonians which begins with Paul’s customary greeting in the name of “God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.” Vs. 1. The letter is actually addressed from Silvanus and Timothy as well as Paul, but there can be little doubt that Paul is the principal author. Timothy, we know, was a close companion of Paul whose ministry is mentioned in I & II Corinthians as well as in this letter. “Silvanus” might be an alternate form of the name “Silas,” Paul’s chosen companion for his second missionary journey according to the Book of Acts. Acts 15:36-41.
Paul praises the church for its courageous faithfulness in the face of affliction. The church’s suffering is a mirror image of Paul’s own experience of opposition in bringing the good news of Jesus to Thessalonica. Vss. 5-6. Just as the Thessalonian church amplifies the ministry begun by Paul, so also does it amplify the good news throughout the Mediterranean world. Vss. 7-8. The nature of the church’s faithful confession and the source of its suffering is clear from Paul’s remark about how well known it is that the Thessalonian believers “turned to God from idols, to serve a living and true God.” Vs. 9. The worship of idols did not consist principally in the exercise of sincere religious faith. By this time in history, most of Rome’s subjects no longer believed in the gods of antiquity. These gods had become symbols of Roman power, Roman supremacy and Roman values. Worshiping them was more an act of patriotism than religious devotion. Nevertheless, in the view of the early church, worship of the state and worship of false deities amounted to the same thing. One cannot confess that Jesus is Lord and simultaneously declare that Caesar is Lord. The political nature of this declaration that “Jesus is Lord” is spelled out in the witness of the Book of Acts to Paul’s missionary work in Thessalonica:
“But the Jews became jealous, and with the help of some ruffians in the market-places they formed a mob and set the city in an uproar. While they were searching for Paul and Silas to bring them out to the assembly, they attacked Jason’s house. When they could not find them, they dragged Jason and some believers before the city authorities, shouting, ‘These people who have been turning the world upside down have come here also, and Jason has entertained them as guests. They are all acting contrary to the decrees of the emperor, saying that there is another king named Jesus. The people and the city officials were disturbed when they heard this, and after they had taken bail from Jason and the others, they let them go.” Acts 17:5-9.
We American protestants, hung over as we are from our fifteen and one half century Constantinian drinking binge, are still trying to disentangle ourselves from the religious patronage we have become accustomed to providing the state. Though the United States has never had a state church as such, it has leaned heavily on mainline protestant churches to uphold its middle class values, give religious content to its ideologies, bless its wars and sanctify its policies. More than half our churches still have American flags in them and I suspect that removing them would raise a greater outcry than removing the cross. We have a difficult time separating our identities as American citizens from our baptismal identity as subjects of Christ’s kingdom. That is largely because it has never occurred to most of us that there could be any such separation. Now the separation is upon us. America has now learned that it can go on its way very nicely without the church. The church, however, is still reeling from the break up, wondering what it said that was wrong, refusing to acknowledge that the divorce is final and wondering whether there is any way to patch things up.
It will come as no surprise to anyone following this blog that I think it is high time to accept the divorce as final (with thanksgiving!). I find here one more instance of support for the thesis that the most radical thing the church can do is simply be the church and stop worrying about whether that is relevant to anything else on anyone’s agenda.
There are two very important lessons here, each deserving separate treatment, which the common lectionary, in its infinite wisdom, has seen fit to cram into one reading. The first is the controversy over tribute to Caesar which happens to be one of the most commonly misinterpreted texts in the New Testament. Typically, preachers have treated this lesson as a discussion about the role of government. The issue pressed by the Pharisees and Herodians sets up a false dichotomy, or so the argument goes. It is not a matter of God vs. Caesar, but what is owed to each. Because the kingdom Jesus proclaimed was a “heavenly” kingdom practiced through personal morality, it does not displace Caesar’s role as emperor. Faith does not require disloyalty to Caesar, but rather complements his civil authority with heartfelt obedience to a deeper personal morality. Thus, Caesar is simply “the left hand of God” at work in the world maintaining a semblance of order so that the higher morality of faith can thrive.
Nothing could be further from Jesus’ message here. Note first of all that the Herodians, with whom the Pharisees were here allied, were collaborators with Rome. They had no sincere wish to engage Jesus in a discussion about how a conscientious Jew lives faithfully under pagan domination. Nor was the issue of loyalty to Caesar one that required extensive discussion. The First Commandment is clear. “You shall have no gods beside God.” Exodus 20:3; Deuteronomy 5: 7. Moreover, you are not to make or worship any image as divine. Exodus 20:4-6; Deuteronomy 5:8-10. (Actually, that is the Second Commandment for most non-Lutheran folks). So when Jesus is confronted with the question about paying taxes to Caesar, he asks his opponents for the coin with which they intend to pay the tax. It is noteworthy that Jesus must ask them for this coin. He obviously does not have such a coin in his possession. The fact that his opponents do speaks volumes. The minute they produce the coin and hand it to Jesus, the argument is finished. Jesus has already made his point. Now it’s just a matter of having a little fun with his opponents.
With a little imagination, we can readily see how this confrontation plays out. “Oh, my!” Says Jesus. “This coin has an image on it!” His opponents are now beginning to squirm. Just as Jesus turned the question of authority back on the heads of these opponents a couple of Sunday’s ago by bringing up their compromised position on John the Baptist, so now he confronts them in the presence of the people with a clear violation of the First Commandment. “Sorry.” Says Jesus. “I didn’t quite catch that. Could you speak a tad louder, please? Whose image did you say was on this coin?”
“Caesar’s,” they mutter in a barely audible reply. The crowd has got to be loving this.
“Well, then,” says Jesus handing back the coin, “Let’s just give back to Caesar what clearly belongs to him and give God alone what belongs to God.” Jesus’ opponents shuffle away with their idolatrous coin while Jesus himself is as free of idolatrous images as he was to begin with. Point made. The state is not God. It has no right to demand that a disciple take up the sword to fight its wars when the disciple’s Lord has commanded him to put up the sword. The state has no right to demand ultimate allegiance from a disciple that can be given only to the disciple’s Lord. Modern nationalism and its call for ultimate allegiance and blood sacrifice, no less than First Century imperialism, is rank idolatry. This is not a matter of both/and. It is a matter of either/or.
Next we move to the question about the resurrection of the dead. The Sadducees’ hypothetical is not as outlandish as it might seem. A woman incapable of bearing children might be divorced for that reason by any number of husbands. Perhaps that was the fate of the woman at the well in John’s gospel who had had five husbands. John 4:16-19. If that were the case here, the woman would not have belonged to any of the seven brothers because they would all have divorced her. In order for the hypothetical to work, the brothers must all have died while legally married to the woman in question. The logic employed by the Sadducees is absolutely air tight. If God had intended to raise the dead, God would never have instituted a requirement for remarriage, as such a practice would obviously create insoluble problems in the next life.
There is a serious concern behind this hypothetical for all of us who have been married even just once. Will those relationships that have formed us and become a part of our identity survive into the post-resurrection world? If not, then how can there be any meaningful resurrection? Who am I if not the product of those whom I love and those who have loved me? Jesus responds by informing his opponents that “in the resurrection they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven.” Vs. 30. Given how little the Bible actually tells us about what angels are like, this isn’t much of an answer. Perhaps it is Jesus’ way of saying that the question cannot be answered this side of eternity. Paul deals with substantially the same question in his first letter to the Corinthian church, which asks him what sort of body believers will receive in the resurrection. Paul is less diplomatic than Jesus. He says that the question is stupid. I Corinthians 15:35-36. Nevertheless, he goes on to answer it-after a fashion. He uses the growth of a plant from a seed as an analogy. Clearly there is continuity between the seed and the plant. They are one in the same. Yet the plant is so radically different, more complex and beautiful than the seed from which it came that one would never believe the two to be related if this miracle of growth were not taking place all around us every day. As difficult as it would be for one looking only at the seed of a plant s/he had never seen full grown to figure out what the full grown plant will look like, so difficult is it for us to imagine our bodily existence in the world of the resurrection. I Corinthians 15:35-50. Perhaps John says it best of all: “Beloved, we are God’s children now; it does not yet appear what we shall be, but we know that when he appears we shall be like him.” I John 3:2. That is really all we need to know.
Next, Jesus turns to what is the real issue, namely, the power of God. The Sadducees are not lacking in knowledge or understanding. Indeed, from a formal scriptural point of view, they have the stronger argument. Ancient Judaism had no conception of life after death beyond a vague notion of “sheol,” a shadowy underworld where there was little if any conscious existence. Though in no way similar to later notions of hell and eternal punishment, sheol was the dead end to which all life eventually came. The psalms seeking salvation from sheol are best understood not as a plea for eternal life, but a request not to be taken to sheol prematurely. Resurrection is spoken of specifically only in the Book of Daniel, one of the latest books in the Hebrew Scriptural cannon. Daniel 12:1-4.
Nevertheless, the Sadducees’ scriptural arguments fail and not for lack of interpretive skill, but due to a lack of faith and imagination. God is the master of his words, not the servant. Law, whether it consists of moral precepts or principles of natural science, is part and parcel of the universe God created. As such, it cannot bind its maker. God hardly needs scriptural sanction to raise the dead and so the only question is whether God is willing and able to do so. Jesus says “yes” to both. If God, the great “I Am,” introduces himself to Moses as “the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob,” does one dare to say that this God is a deity of the dead? No, says Jesus, all who are loved and remembered by God are alive in God. They are loved back to life by God.
This lesson offers a great opportunity for talking about resurrection, eternal life, what it is, what it is not and what can and cannot be said about it. Though we mainliners are reluctant to speak of resurrection other than as a metaphor of some great project or agenda, we need to shake off our 19th Century prejudices and recognize that we are living in the 21st Century. Death and resurrection are of great concern to a lot of folks who lack the conceptual tools and biblical images for contemplating the mystery of eternal life. If we remain silent, we cede this ground to the Left Behind crowd whose message is more about fear than hope.