Tag Archives: Epiphany

Naming the stars; a poem by Henry Rago; and the lessons for Sunday, February 4, 2018


Isaiah 40:21-31
Psalm 147:1-11, 20c
1 Corinthians 9:16-23
Mark 1:29-39

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.

She, Nameless

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.

Isaiah 40:21-31

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.

Psalm 147:1-11, 20c

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.

1 Corinthians 9:16-23

“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.

Mark 1:29-39

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.


Sunday, February 7th


Exodus 34:29–35
Psalm 99
2 Corinthians 3:12—4:2
Luke 9:28–36

PRAYER OF THE DAY: Holy God, mighty and immortal, you are beyond our knowing, yet we see your glory in the face of Jesus Christ. Transform us into the likeness of your Son, who renewed our humanity so that we may share in his divinity, Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

Just about the time I think I have Jesus figured out, I discover I don’t. That, more than anything else, gives me hope that I am still Jesus’ disciple. Anyone who thinks s/he has Jesus figured out surely has stopped listening to him. Everyone who pays attention to Jesus understands that the more you get to know Jesus, the more you realize you have to learn. Our gospel lesson for Transfiguration reminds us emphatically that God would have us listen to Jesus, because that is the only way we are ever going to know anything about God, about ourselves, where we are in the grand scheme of things and wither we are going.

Listening to Jesus is a lifelong assignment quite different from learning the rudimentary doctrines of the Christian Faith. Catechetical instruction does not end with our mastering a finite collection of doctrines, teachings and traditions. Though important, doctrine, theology and faith practices merely give us the language we need to grow into our living relationship with the Crucified and Resurrected Lord. They equip us with the language, images and conceptual tools we need to hear the voice of Jesus.

Jesus came to deconstruct all our humanly pre-conceived notions about God. As Mark Twain once remarked, “It ain’t what people don’t know that’s so dangerous; it’s what they do know that ain’t so.” There is plenty said by preachers, politicians and pundits these days about who God is, what God wants and how God acts that isn’t so. I don’t have to name any names to make the point that what people are led to believe about God can lead to monstrous images of God. For the sake of gods masquerading as the God of the Bible we have conducted holy wars, executed people for witchcraft, practiced racial segregation, murdered and socially ostracized sexual minorities, subjugated women and abused children.

It is all too easy, I think, for those of us in the mainline protestant traditions, who claim to have moved beyond some of the more blatant manifestations of these sins, to point the finger at the likes of Franklin Graham and Jerry Falwell, Jr. who are still breathing words of hate and intolerance in the name of God. We had best be careful with our stone throwing, because our distance from them is more rhetorical than real. As much as we rail against racism, our churches are still the most segregated institutions in America today. Though we have been ordaining women as ministers for decades and can even boast a few women bishops, the glass ceiling is still alive and well throughout the church at large. We may have come a long way in recent years toward welcoming gay, lesbian and transgendered people in theory, but in practice our churches still harbor more than a little fear, hostility and bigotry against them. At some level, it seems that we have yet to free ourselves from the angry, intolerant, moralistic monster we have created in our own image and made god.

Or perhaps our struggle is not so much to free ourselves from a false notion of God as it is to believe in the true vision Jesus opens up for us. At the end of our gospel reading, the disciples are left with no bright light, booming voice or all-encompassing cloud. Moses and Elijah have vanished. Jesus alone remains with them-and that is all the God there is. No wonder the disciples kept silent about this event. How can you comfort a frightened child with a God who is only human, who will not invoke protective angelic armies, who will not shield his disciples from the cross he must bear, who warns them that the only glory worth having is in siding with the hungry, the sinful, the outcast, the sick, the condemned criminal and the outsider-the last folks you’re likely to find sitting next to you in the pew on Sunday. How much comfort and security are you going to find with this God who calls you into a way of living that is likely to get you killed? How can you trust a God who is not in control? The god who sits in front of the instrument panel making everything happen on earth is a mirage. He does not exist. The only real God is the one whose heart breaks on the cross, but still keeps loving and forgiving; the God who came to win hearts by the power of his Word rather than to win wars by the might of his armies. This alone is God. Listen to him.

When we listen to Jesus, he helps us re-imagine God-not as the mere projection of our own prejudices and our need for security-but as the one who slowly, patiently and gently draws the universe into reconciliation and invites us to participate in that good work. When we listen to Jesus, we discover, not the god made in our own image, but the God who transforms us into God’s image.

Here’s a poem by Brook Emery about re-imagining God.

Monster [It’s possible I misconstrued you]

It’s possible I misconstrued you,

laid too much emphasis on the uniqueness of a birth,
failed to acknowledge circumstance could corrupt, sustain;
I indulged myself in accusations against an absolute.

I don’t believe what I then believed. You are not responsible

for Leibniz or the Lisbon quake, for the twenty-six-eyed
and sixty-arsed box jellyfish, that the cosmos
is shaped like a soccer ball; or for the dosido
of right and wrong around the garden bed.

You are not the monster I thought you were,

not by definition or necessity the one immutable.
You are a creator caught in a creator’s net, in fact
a creature. Every horror has its own pathology,

the disease infects the flock. Prey present as predators,
the malefactors replicate even as the angels
experiment with cures. Each encounter pulls against reductive story,
says I will not, I am just (an instant, an instance),

and reference skews on maps not drawn to scale.

I know saintliness exists. It’s all around me.
My next door neighbours in their simple modesty,
the lady down the street who is always
helping someone older than herself. Even the slow
judicial process conceives it natural to be better
than we are. I’m trying to shoo the gloomy birds away

but crows repeat about me on the lawn; and the vulture
and the kite, the cuckoo and the owl: should I have given up the ghost
when I was drawn from the womb?

By Brook Emery

Source: Uncommon Light, Five Islands Press, 2007 (c. 2007 by Brook Emery). Brook Emery is an Australian poet and high school teacher born in 1949. His poems integrate philosophy, science, and psychology. You can find out more about Emery and his many poetic works at the Poetry Foundation website.

Exodus 34:29–35

Chapter 34 of Exodus forms the climax of a narrative section beginning with Exodus 32 relating the story of idolatry with the golden calf and  Moses’ smashing of the original two tablets of the law. In Exodus 33, Moses intercedes with God and achieves a healing of the breach of covenant occasioned by Israel’s idolatrous conduct. Exodus 34 recounts the restoration of the covenant terms. Notably, Moses himself cuts these tablets and inscribes the law upon them whereas the first tablets were inscribed “by the finger of God.” Exodus 31:18. Professor Childs seems to think that this is simply a distinction without a difference. Childs, Brevard S., The Book of Exodus, The Old Testament Library (c. 1974 by Brevard S. Childs, pub. by The Westminster Press) p 611. I am not so sure about that. I suspect that the narrator means to tell us that this episode of unfaithfulness on Israel’s part, which later became a paradigm of prophetic preaching in the 8th and 9th Centuries B.C.E., has done some long term, if not permanent damage to the covenant relationship.

Moses has just come down from the top of Mt. Sinai. He has been up there for forty days fasting and writing the terms of the renewed covenant onto the two stone tablets. He is quite unaware that he has been noticeably changed, so much so that the children of Israel are afraid of him. This is a mystery, of course. I doubt we will ever understand exactly what happened to Moses at Sinai, but perhaps there are some analogies in our own experiences that give us a glimpse. I remember the return home of each one of my three children from their first semester at college. They were changed. They had been exposed to new ideas and values different from the ones with which they grew up. They had experienced a measure of independence that had given them a new sense of confidence. They thought about and responded to me in new and often critical ways that often made me just a little uncomfortable. They were still the same kids they were when I left them at the dormitory-but they were also different. I knew that if I was going to continue having a meaningful relationship with them, I had to start relating to them differently. Things between us would be different from now on. Good, but different.

How much more changed a man must be after a face to face encounter with the God of Israel! Moses was returning after having received the Torah, the commandments and ordinances that would assist Israel in living into nationhood as the chosen people of God. He had seen the shape of holiness. That is not the sort of experience you can share in a brief press release. Neither can you undergo such an experience and expect to come back the same person. It will take some time for Moses to unpack everything he brought with him from the top of Mt. Sinai and it will take some time for the people to digest it.

We all have life changing experiences that shape who we are. Some of them shape us for the better. Others can leave us wounded and scarred. Life is such that you cannot control the experiences you are going have. But you can put yourself in a place where you are assured that God’s Word will be a powerful and transformative experience in your life. You can make time with the scriptures a part of every day. You can make prayer a daily practice. You can worship with your sisters and brothers gathered around the preaching of God’s Word and the Eucharistic meal. I cannot promise that you will come away from church with your face glowing; but you can be sure that your heart is being transformed by the working of God’s Spirit.

It should also be noted that St. Paul cites this story in his Second Letter to the church at Corinth. II Corinthians 3:7-18. For Paul, the veil over Moses’ face symbolizes the obstruction to a correct understanding of Moses that can only be removed by faith in Jesus Christ.

Psalm 99

This psalm appears to be constructed in three sections, each ending with the refrain “Holy is he [God].” See vss. 5, 7 & 9. Like psalms 93 and 97, this psalm acclaims God as king over all the earth. The fact that these psalms make no mention of the kings of Israel or Judah suggests that they were composed after the Babylonian destruction of Jerusalem ending the line of Davidic kings. To a vanquished people in a world filled with unjust and tyrannical kings, this psalm boldly proclaims that the only true King is the Lord. This King is a “lover of justice,” has “established equity” and has “executed justice and righteousness in Jacob.” Vs. 4. Naturally, then, the peoples and their unjust rulers tremble when confronted with the reality of God’s kingship. Vs. 1.

The “cherubim” (Vs. 1) were winged bull like creatures with lion heads. Dahlberg, B.T., “Angel,” The Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, Vol. 1, (c. 1962 by Abingdon Press) pp. 131-132. Two of these fabulous beasts were carved at the top of the Ark of the Covenant over which the God of Israel was thought to be enthroned. Exodus 25: 18-20; Exodus 37:6-9; Numbers 7:89; I Samuel 4:4; I Kings 6:23-28; I Kings 8:6-7. If this reference is to the Ark, it is possible that the psalm is of much earlier origin than generally thought, dating back to the early period of the monarchy when the Ark was still in Israel’s possession. But the term “cherubim” is also used to personify storm clouds and thunder storms. Therefore, its use here is not inconsistent with a composition date for this psalm after the Babylonian conquest.

The mention of Moses, Aaron and Samuel, prominent men of faith who lived and ministered before the rise of the monarchy in Israel, further suggests that this psalm is post-exilic. Vs. 6. Having seen generations of kings fall short of what righteousness and justice demand, Israel was now convinced that God alone deserved the title “king.” Though their actions had an undeniable political dimension, the chief role of the three figures named in this psalm was priestly and intercessory. Aaron was the founding figure of cultic practice in Israel. Moses’ intercessions frequently came between Israel and God’s wrath at her disobedience. So also Samuel interceded on Israel’s behalf on numerous occasions. Yet while the psalmist affirms the role and legitimacy of Israel’s priestly establishment and the sacrificial worship over which it presides, this worship is only effective because “thou wast a forgiving God to them.” Vs. 8. The sovereignty and power of God, though manifested in storms and earthquakes, is chiefly expressed in God’s zeal for justice and readiness to show mercy.

2 Corinthians 3:12—4:2

A few words about Paul’s Second letter to the Corinthian church are in order. Paul evidently made a visit to the church in Corinth after writing I Corinthians. This visit was “painful” and did not result in any reconciliation of differences between the apostle and his congregation. Rather than attempting another visit that he feared would also be unsuccessful, Paul wrote a “letter of tears” to Corinth sent by the hand of Titus. Fearing the effects of this severe letter, Paul left Troas in Asia Minor where he had begun a successful mission and returned to Macedonia in search of Titus. Paul rejoined Titus in Macedonia and was greatly relieved to learn that the Corinthians had indeed responded favorably to his “severe” letter with a change of heart toward him. Paul wrote II Corinthians expressing his gratitude to the congregation and to encourage it in its faith.

For centuries biblical scholars have puzzled over the abrupt change in tone between II Corinthians 1-9 and II Corinthians 10-13. Most scholars now agree that these two sections represent different letters, though both authored by Paul, chapters 1-9 constituting the earlier letter and chapters 10-13 forming a later message. Furnish, Victor Paul, II Corinthians, The Anchor Bible Commentaries, (c. 1984 by Doubleday & Company, Inc.) p. 41. Some scholars maintain, however, that chapters 10-13 constitute all or part of Paul’s “letter of tears” while chapters 1-9 constitute a subsequent letter of thanksgiving written in response to Titus’ favorable report. Ibid p. 37.

Paul is here interpreting the lesson from Exodus discussed above. You will recall that Moses’ face glowed following his descent from Mt. Sinai with the tablets of the law. This change in Moses frightened the people and so Moses wore a veil when addressing the people. When Moses spoke with God, he removed the veil. Paul compares this veil on Moses’ face to the veil he contends prevents some of his fellow Jews from recognizing Jesus as God’s messiah. The metaphor is difficult because Moses’ veil was not designed to hinder the people from seeing or hearing him, but rather to protect them from the radiance of God’s glory by which they felt threatened.  Moses, not the people, takes cover under the veil. Consequently, we need to focus not so much on the people as on Moses. When Moses turns to speak with the Lord, the veil is removed. The glory of God is allowed to permeate Moses and he is transfigured with light. But when Moses turns away from the Lord, he must put on the veil.

According to Paul, Moses is rightly understood and seen only when he is face to face with God. He is no longer a mediator between God and Israel. Now God has shown directly into the hearts of his people “to give the light of knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ.” II Corinthians 4:6. Thus, only in Jesus Christ are the Hebrew Scriptures fully understood. “And we all,” says Paul, “with unveiled face [like Moses], beholding the glory of the Lord, are being changed [like Moses] into his likeness from one degree of glory to another.” II Corinthians 3:18. What could previously be seen only through the veiled face of Moses can now be seen directly in Jesus. The same transformative power that filled Moses with light now shines through Jesus in the church.

Luke 9:28–36

Luke tells the transfiguration story a little differently than do Mark and Matthew who also report this amazing event. In Luke, the disciples are “weighted down” with sleep, but may not have actually fallen asleep. Vs. 32. Luke tells us not only that Jesus was conversing with Moses and Elijah, but also what they were talking about. They were speaking of the “departure” that Jesus was to accomplish at Jerusalem. Vs. 31. It is highly significant that the Greek word Luke uses for “departure” is the same one the Greek Old Testament uses for the title of the second book of the Bible, “Exodus.” The Exodus, of course, is the foundational and most significant saving act of God in the Hebrew Scriptures. Thus, Luke wishes to make absolutely clear that God is about to accomplish through Jesus’ suffering and death a new Exodus, a new saving event. The presence of Moses, the giver of the law, along with Elijah, the greatest of all prophets, indicates that this new Exodus to occur in Jerusalem, the City of David, will fulfill the whole of the Hebrew Scriptures. So when we arrive at verse 51 in which Jesus “set his face to go to Jerusalem,” we know that a critical turning point in the narrative has arrived. Jesus is now zeroing in on his primary objective.

The cloud enveloping the mountain top cannot help but bring to mind God’s appearance in the cloud over Mt. Sinai-the place from which Moses returned glowing with divine glory. Quite understandably, the disciples are afraid of the overshadowing cloud. So, too, the voice from the cloud is reminiscent of the voice thundering from Sinai so terrifying the people of Israel that they begged Moses to implore God no longer to speak directly to them. Exodus 20:18-20. Of course, it is also possible to see in this event a reflection of Elijah’s encounter with God on the holy mountain in the 19th Chapter of 1 Kings. There, too, the prophet encountered a powerful wind storm, an earthquake and a terrifying fire. In this case, however, God’s word was not found in any of these impressive natural events. Instead, God was heard in a “still small voice” or, as some translators have rendered it, “a sound of sheer silence.” I Kings 19:12.

I am intrigued by the possible link to the Elijah story because it alters my Sunday School impression of that voice from the cloud as deep, commanding and terrifying. Although the disciples are frightened as they enter the cloud, there is no indication that the voice from the cloud had a similar effect. Luke does not have the disciples falling on their faces in fear as do Mark and Matthew. Thus, I wonder whether my image of this event has not been colored more by Cecil B. DeMille than careful reading of the text. How does the voice of God really sound? How did the disciples perceive it? Would we know the voice of God even if we heard it? How does this question shape our perception of Jesus as God’s Son?

The marvelous thing about this story is its incomprehensibility. It raises more questions than it answers and reminds us that however much we may think we know about Jesus, we are not close to knowing him fully yet.


Sunday, January 31st

Fourth Sunday after Epiphany

Jeremiah 1:4-10
Psalm 71:1-6
1 Corinthians 13:1-13
Luke 4:21-30

Prayer of the Day: Almighty and ever-living God, increase in us the gifts of faith, hope, and love; and that we may obtain what you promise, make us love what you command, through your Son, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.

In our first lesson God sends a reluctant young Jeremiah to “pluck up and to break down” great nations and to “build and to plant” the seeds of a new covenant. For accomplishing this daunting assignment, he will have nothing more than the words God is giving him to speak. That should not strike us as remarkable. Words are powerful weapons. They incite revolutions, foment rebellion and inspire societal transformation that topples kingdoms and dissolves empires. The words of Dr. Martin Luther King ignited a movement that brought institutional segregation to an end. It was largely the influence of new ideas expressed in the words of dissent that moved the peoples of eastern Europe to end the regimes that held them captive for half a century. But words are also instrumental in holding together the status quo, giving ideological justification to oppression and sanctifying violence. Sinister racist sentiments, once expressed in ugly epitaphs we no longer tolerate, still wrap themselves around seemingly benign slogans such as “state’s rights,” “America first,” “make America great again” and the relentless rant against “political correctness.” Words can ruin friendships, destroy reputations and undermine a community’s confidence in its leaders. Words can be either allies or enemies of the truth. In times of violence and injustice, the prophet’s task is to marshal words in defense of truthful speech.

Jeremiah lived through the destruction of his nation. He witnessed the violence, cruelty and oppression that preceded Jerusalem’s destruction and that followed in its wake. There was no shortage of prophets in Jeremiah’s time. Most of them were prophesying victory, peace and safety for the people of Judah as the storm clouds of war with Babylon gathered on the horizon. Hananiah, Jeremiah’s prophetic nemesis, assured the people that they had nothing to fear from Babylon, that God would break that oppressive empire’s yolk and restore the kingdom of Judah to its glory days. Hananiah’s promises were spoken in the covenant language of scripture. More than a century before the prophet Isaiah had foretold an age of peace and prosperity brought about by the glory of the Lord. In Isaiah’s age, God had in fact broken the Assyrian army at the gates of Jerusalem sparing the city, the temple and the line of David. Why should the people doubt that God would do the same for Israel once again? Why continue to endure Babylonian domination? Why not stand up defiantly against the tyrant and trust in God’s promises to deliver Zion holy city and defend the temple?

Jeremiah understood that Hananiah was employing the language of scriptural truth to prophesy lies. He knew that Babylon was not the greatest threat to Israel’s existence and that victory on the battle field would not amount to salvation. Israel’s fixation on preserving the temple, the institution of the Davidic monarchy and her territorial sovereignty prevented her from recognizing her deepest need. Israel’s problem was that, as currently constituted, she had ceased altogether to be the faithful covenant partner God desired. Faith in God’s goodness had gradually degenerated into a sense of entitlement, a deluded belief that God was somehow obliged to save Israel’s beloved institutions no matter how unjust, oppressive and idolatrous she had become. What Israel was so desperately trying to save were the very things destroying her soul. The nation of Israel had to die so that the people of Israel could be reborn. God was taking away the hallmarks of Israel’s identity because that identity had become so monstrously distorted. Moreover, God had something far more precious to give Israel than what she was about to lose. That is why Jeremiah insisted that there would be no miraculous rescue this time. There was no getting around God’s judgment, but there would be a way through it to the dawn of a new day. But this good news had to be heard as bad news before it could be received as good.

In this war of words between the two prophets, Hananiah was the winner-at least in the short term. The king and the religious establishment put their trust in an ill-fated insurrection against Babylon inspired by Hananiah’s promise of divine assistance. Jeremiah suffered mob violence, religious persecution and imprisonment for the word he was compelled to speak. Yet the Bible contains not the book of Hananiah, but the oracles of Jeremiah. It was finally the words of the true and faithful prophet that enabled the exiled Jews to make sense of the terrible judgment that had befallen them and to recognize in that judgment the compassion of a God who loved them too much to allow them to continue in their faithless and self-destructive ways. Both Hananiah and Jeremiah spoke the words of scripture. But only Jeremiah spoke the Word of God.

Words, metaphors, similes, and figures of speech in the hands of false prophets, demagogues and hate groups are lethal weapons of destruction. This is particularly true where the words in question are taken from the Bible. But in the mouth of a prophet, words pluck up and tear down evil principalities and powers while planting and building up the gentle reign of God. Ours is the God who is not merely as good as his word. John’s gospel tells us that God is God’s Word. Our God is the God who speaks the universe into existence. Our God meets us in the medium of human speech. For that reason, language is holy. Every prophet knows (as does every poet) that words must be handled with discernment, reverence, wonder and awe.

Here are the words of poet Eavan Boland who, like Jeremiah, prophesied in a time of violence.

Writing in a Time of Violence

In my last year in College
I set out
to write an essay on
the Art o Rhetoric. I had yet to find

the country already lost to me
in song and figure as I scribbled down
names for sweet euphony
and safe digression.

And when I came to the word insinuate
I saw that language could writhe and creep
and the lore of snakes
which I had learned as a child not to fear-
because the Saint had sent them out of Ireland-
came nearer.

Chiasmus, Litols, Periphrasis Old
indices and agents of persuasion. How
I remember them in that room where
a girl is writing at a desk with
dusk already in
the streets outside. I can see her. I could say to her-

we will live, we have lived
where language is concealed. It is perilous.
We will be—we have been—citizens
of its hiding place. But it is too late

to shut the book of satin phrases,
to refuse to enter
an evening bitter with peat smoke,
where newspaper sellers shout headlines
and friends call out their farewells in
a city of whispers
and interiors where

the dear vowels
Irish Ireland ours are
absorbed into Autumn air,
are out of earshot in the distances
we are stepping into where we never

imagine words such as hate
and territory and the like—unbanished still
as they always would be—wait
and are waiting under
beautiful speech. To strike.

By Eavan Boland. Source: Poems in a Time of Violence, (c. 1994 by Eavan Boland, pub. by W.W. Norton Company, Inc.). Eavan Boland was born in Dublin, Ireland in 1944. She spent her girlhood in London and New York, returning to Ireland to attend secondary school in Killiney and college at Trinity College in Dublin. Boland’s poetry explores the complex experience of women in Irish history and culture, challenging traditional conceptions of womanhood and offering fresh perspectives on their roles. You can learn more about Eavan Boland and read more of her poetry on the Poetry Foundation website.

Jeremiah 1:4-10

For an excellent overview of the Book of Jeremiah, see the article by Professor Terrence Fretheim of Luther Seminary, St. Paul, MN at enterthebible.org. In this Sunday’s lesson, the prophet Jeremiah receives his call from the Lord. It is hard to pinpoint the precise timing of Jeremiah’s call. The opening lines of the book state that Jeremiah’s prophetic career began in the thirteenth year of the reign of King Josiah of Judah. Yet there is no reference in Jeremiah’s preaching to the extensive campaign against idolatry undertaken by this king that would surely have been favored by Jeremiah or to the king’s untimely death. This has led scholars to suspect that Jeremiah’s call may actually have taken place during the reign of Josiah’s successors. Some scholars have suggested that Jeremiah perceived his first basic encounter and call from God to have occurred before he was “formed in the womb.” Thus, the thirteenth year of Josiah’s reign may have been the prophet’s birthday where God “consecrated” him. His call might therefore have taken place after Josiah’s death. See Holladay, William M., “The Years of Jeremiah’s Preaching,” Interpretation, Vol. 37, No. 2 (April 1983) pp. 146-159.

More important than the precise date of Jeremiah’s call is the general historical context. It was the beginning of the age of empires. Assyria had dominated the middle east for nearly a century. When its power began to wane, young Josiah stepped into the power vacuum expanding the borders of his country further than at any time since the days of David and Solomon. He also launched a campaign to purge Israel of all pagan influences and restore the proper worship of Israel’s God. The king’s political success and his religious reforms proved short lived. Josiah lost his life opposing Egypt’s failed attempt to prop up what was left of Assyria now under siege from the rising Babylonian empire. Judah once again became a mere vassal of an imperial power, this time Egypt. In less than a year, she would be under the king of Babylon. Thus, Jeremiah was born into a turbulent era of transition. The age of city states and petty regional kingdoms was coming to an end. The age of empires had begun.

Prophets are often characterized as idealistic dreamers out of touch with geopolitical realities. Reliance upon the Lord is a pious, but unhelpful piece of advice to the king of a tiny nation caught between multiple superpowers. But Jeremiah was no novice when it came to analysis of political realities. Better than any of the kings to whom he prophesied, Jeremiah could see clearly that the world was changing. He understood the difficult truth that Israel’s rulers could not comprehend: that there was no future for Judah as an independent kingdom under the line of David. Trying to restore the glories of that kingdom in the present age was a sure recipe for disaster. If you have read the entire book of Jeremiah, then you know that his message was rejected by the Judean leadership which was hell bent on winning independence for Judah from Babylon. Jeremiah saw this stubborn determination to pursue a hopelessly impossible dream as a rejection of Israel’s God and a lack of trust in God’s ability to deliver to Judah a new and better day.

“Before you were in the womb I knew you.” Vs. 5. We should not get too caught up in speculation about God’s foreknowledge and how much of Jeremiah’s life was “predestined.” The emphasis should be placed on the words, “I knew you.” The Hebrew word for “know” used here denotes a particularly intimate sort of knowledge. The indication here is that Jeremiah is to be more than a message boy. His career will be one of intimacy with the God who called him from the womb. This relationship between the Lord and his messenger is in some respects analogous to a marriage. If you read on in this marvelous book you will discover that this “marriage” was frequently rocky. Jeremiah sometimes complained bitterly that God had let him down, deceived him and left him to the mercy of his enemies. Jeremiah 20:7-12. God was often less than gentle in responding to Jeremiah. Jeremiah 15:15-21. But that only underscores the freedom Jeremiah felt to express his deepest sentiments to the God whose word consumed his entire being.

“Ah, Lord God! Behold, I do not know how to speak, for I am only a youth.” Vs. 6.  One thing most prophets seem to have in common is low self-esteem. Jeremiah thinks he is too young and inexperienced. Moses felt he was not sufficiently articulate. Isaiah thought he was too sinful. Amos would not even accept the title of prophet. These are not the kind of extraverted, can do, positive thinking types that denominational leadership seeks for “mission developers.” It seems that genuine prophets come by their calling only reluctantly.

Psalm 71:1-6

This psalm is remarkably similar to Psalm 31. It also contains phrases and expressions that are nearly identical to other psalms. Consequently, some scholars have speculated that Psalm 71 is of more recent composition, having borrowed from these older psalms. Rogerson, J.W. and McKay, J.W., Psalms 51-100, The Cambridge Bible Commentary (c. 1977 by Cambridge University Press) p. 106. That reasoning is not entirely convincing to me, however. There is no reference to any historical event that would allow us to date this psalm. Therefore, it seems just as likely to me that Psalm 31 and the other psalms borrowed from Psalm 71 which could as easily be the more ancient. I know. Who cares?

The personal details in this psalm are remarkable. If you read the psalm in its entirety, you will discover that the psalmist is an old man or woman. His or her “strength is spent.” Vs. 9. Yet the psalmist is beset by enemies who see his or her weakness as evidence that “God has forsaken him” and that it is therefore safe to “size him” for “there is none to deliver him.”  vs. 11. (I should explain here that the use of gender in the Hebrew language is not heavily tied to the male/female dichotomy. Consequently, we cannot draw any conclusions about the psalmist’s sex from the fact that the English translators have consistently rendered the pronouns in this psalm masculine.) Though understandably concerned, the psalmist does not come to this crisis with a blank slate. The psalmist has experienced God’s salvation throughout his or her life. Because God has a track record of faithfulness, the psalmist is confident that, “Thou who hast made me see many sore troubles wilt revive me again; from the depths of the earth thou wilt bring me up again.” Vs. 20.

Once again, this prayer illustrates the breadth of human experience found in the psalms running the gambit from youthful insecurity in the face of life’s complexities to the struggles of aging and confronting death. I cannot emphasize how important it is to make these psalms your friends. The earlier in life you do that, the greater the source of comfort, strength and wisdom they will become.

1 Corinthians 13:1-13

This is one of those texts known even to people who have never picked up a Bible. Just as the Twenty Third Psalm is a staple at every funeral, the Thirteenth Chapter of Corinthians is nearly universal at every Christian wedding. Though much of what Paul has to say in this chapter is applicable to marriage, that is not what was on Paul’s mind as he wrote these words. Recall that Paul is in the midst of a letter addressed to a divided and fractious church. In last Sunday’s lesson, Paul pointed out that the Church, even the sorely divided Corinthian church, is the Body of Christ. That means that we are all individually members of that church. We do not think or conduct ourselves as autonomous individuals. We harmonize our lives to the needs of the Body of which we are part.

Clearly, the congregation in Corinth was a long way from that kind of harmonious living-as is every church to which I have ever belonged. But Paul insists that his view of the church is not just an impossible utopian ideal. Nor is it merely an aspiration. The flesh and blood church of today with all its warts, short comings and sins is the Body of Christ. I repeat: this is not just a metaphor. Paul really means to say that the church is Christ’s resurrected Body. It is a broken and wounded Body, to be sure, but it is nevertheless a Body animated by God’s Holy Spirit. Though ever dying, it is always being called back to life again. It is always in the process of healing. How, then, do sinful and self-centered men and woman live together as one Body? That is “the more excellent way” to which Paul referred at the end of Chapter 12 last week and discusses in Chapter 13 this week.

Though written in highly polished prose bordering on poetry, this chapter speaks of a love that is anything but gushy and sentimental. “Love is patient.” Vs. 4. That means accepting the fact that the church is made up of people that are broken and, more importantly, that I cannot fix them. Still, I have to love them anyway even though they probably will never change to my liking. “Love is not jealous or boastful.” Vs. 4. That is to say, it often goes unrequited and that has to be OK. I may never be properly thanked for what I do to build up the Body or appreciated for all the sacrifices I make. But if that’s a problem for me, then my love is not the sort that Paul is talking about. “Love does not insist on its own way.” Vs. 5. Not even when I happen to be right; not even when it is a matter of principle; not even when every thinking person would have to agree that my way is really the only way forward. That is sometimes a bitter pill to swallow. When you have a vision for mission or a dream for your church’s future that seems heaven sent, it is hard to hear the rest of the Body tell you that they cannot see it or do not share it. It is at just such times that I am most strongly tempted to abandon the way of love and resort to more coercive political tactics.

“Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.” Vs. 7.  There was once a young pastor fresh out of seminary assigned to a difficult congregation. No matter what the young pastor did, someone in the congregation found fault with him. After one particularly discouraging day, Jesus came by to visit him. The pastor was overjoyed to see Jesus and began immediately to pour out his troubles to the Lord. Jesus listened patiently, nodding his head and giving the young pastor a knowing smile. “Yes,” said Jesus. “A pastor’s first parish can be a difficult challenge. I remember my first church. There were only twelve members. Not one of them ever understood a single sermon I ever preached. All they could ever talk about was who should be in charge and who was the greatest. The treasurer was constantly pilfering church funds for his own use and then he had the nerve to turn me into the authorities for just thirty pieces of silver. My congregational president, who promised to stand by me to the end, told everyone after I was arrested that he didn’t even know me. The rest of my congregation deserted me and left me hanging on a cross. But enough about me. You were telling me about the problems in your congregation.”

Though this story involves a pastor, it applies as well to anyone who takes discipleship and service in the church seriously. The church is not the place to come for coddling. It is where you go to be transformed into the image of Christ. It is the place you go to be built up into the Body of Christ. Love is the cement that holds a church together. Forgiveness is the tar that patches up the breaches in its walls. The church is not a gathering of people who are a moral cut above the rest. We are flawed and broken people who cannot heal ourselves, but who believe that the Holy Spirit working in our midst can bind us together and make of us more than we could ever have been on our own. Rev. Lester Peter, the pastor who ordained me, said in his sermon on that occasion: “Peter, you will meet in your ministry the kindest, most selfless and generous people the world has ever known. You will also meet the orneriest, most stubborn and unforgiving people the world has ever known. And here is the hardest part-they will be the same people.” That has proven true. I have my share of scars from living in the church. But I have far more memories of witnessing acts of extraordinary generosity, hospitality, forgiveness, extraordinary courage and faithfulness in the many churches it has been my privilege to serve. There is no question that churches fall short of their calling. They can be selfish, petty and narrow minded. Even so, the Spirit of God is at work in their midst pushing them beyond themselves, working miracles within them and accomplishing great things through them.

Luke 4:21-30

Most of what I have to say about this passage I said in last week’s post. I do not believe it is possible to understand fully Jesus’ proclamation from the prophet Isaiah in the synagogue of Nazareth without reading what follows in this week’s lesson. I would only add that Jesus employs scripture here in precisely the way I believe preachers should. Recall that last week Jesus boldly proclaimed how Isaiah’s declaration of salvation for the poor, oppressed and blind was being fulfilled through his mission. In this week’s lesson, he appeals to two very well known stories in the Hebrew Scriptures to shed light upon Nazareth’s rejection of his mission. This is not the first time Israel has rejected a prophet sent to her. Elijah and Elisha both were persecuted by Israel’s royal establishment and lived part of their lives as fugitives. But their rejection, so far from thwarting their ministry, resulted in expanding the scope of their work beyond Israel’s borders. The widow who showed mercy on Elijah during his exile and Naaman the Syrian general who came to Elisha for healing experienced the salvation of Israel’s God. Consequently, God’s name was praised among the gentiles. So too, Nazareth’s rejection of Jesus will only further his mission and propel his saving acts further into the heart of Israel. In the same way, the persecution of the church in Jerusalem will spread the preaching of the gospel by the church into new territories. Acts 8:1-4.


Sunday, January 24th


Nehemiah 8:1-3, 5-6, 8-10
Psalm 19
1 Corinthians 12:12-31a
Luke 4:14-21

PRAYER OF THE DAY: Blessed Lord God, you have caused the holy scriptures to be written for the nourishment of your people. Grant that we may hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them, that, comforted by your promises, we may embrace and forever hold fast to the hope of eternal life, through your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.

Our first lesson from Nehemiah takes us back to the beginning of the 5th Century and to the Water Gate at the north end of the newly reconstructed city of Jerusalem. Against all odds and under the able leadership of Nehemiah and Ezra, both the temple and the holy city were rebuilt from the rubble to which they had been reduced by the Babylonian invaders in 587 B.C.E. Now, almost a century later, the temple has been rebuilt and the walls of the city restored. As she has done so many times before, Israel gathers as a community to recommit herself to the covenant with her God. Ezra the scribe, prophet, preacher and priest, regarded in some Jewish traditions as a second Moses, mounts his pulpit to read from the Book of Torah, the Pentateuch, the Five Books of Moses. The people rise as Ezra opens up the book and he blesses them. Then the scribe reads the law to the people and the Levites “help the people understand the law.” Nehemiah 8:7.

Why would the people need an explanation of the law from the Levites? Perhaps for the same reason the church needs clergy. The temple cult had not been practiced for at least seventy years. Much of the Torah and its cultic practices presuppose the temple in Jerusalem and life in the promised land. To these returned exiles, who had lived most of their lives away from that land and without the temple, the ancient laws of Moses probably sounded about as foreign as the ways of Babylon seemed to the prior generation. Scholars also point out that the Hebrew language in which the Torah was written had long since been supplanted by Aramaic as the common tongue of the Jews. Consequently, it might have been necessary for the Levites to translate Ezra’s reading from Hebrew into Aramaic for the common people.

I think there might also be a third explanation. I offer it as a supplement rather than an alternative to either of the two above theories. It seems the people were caught up in a blue funk. Their return to the land of promise was not accompanied by the miraculous creation of a wooded highway through the desert promised by the prophet of Isaiah 40-55. Nor did the rebuilding of the temple usher in the messianic age of prosperity for Israel as the prophets Zechariah and Haggai had foretold. The new Jerusalem turned out not to be the capital of a restored Israelite kingdom rivaling the golden age of David and Solomon. It was merely the governmental seat for one of many regions occupied by the Persian Empire. The new temple was but a poor shadow of the one built under Solomon. Yet for all of that, Israel was still God’s people with whom God was abiding and through whom God was shining God’s light into the world. God was still with Israel and that should have been a source of joy. Such “joy of the Lord” at the very heart of the scriptures, says Ezra, is Israel’s strength. It is the “J” says our poet, Stuart Kestenbaum, that helps “us walk in a new way into this forest of language, where all the letters are beginning to speak, finding each other in just the right combination to be understood.” Perhaps the Levites were needed to help the people discover the ‘J” unlocking the ancient words of the covenant. Maybe their task was to remind the people that these words carried not merely judgment upon their unfaithfulness, but also joy in the certainty that, though Israel may have broken her end of the covenant, God remains ever faithful to God’s end.

While joy and lament might be at opposite ends of the emotional spectrum, they are not mutually exclusive. A good friend and colleague of mine once reminded me that one of the miraculous attributes of humanity is its capacity to experience both joy and profound sorrow at the same time. I see that at so many of the funerals I have done over the years. At nearly every wake you can find people sobbing uncontrollably one minute and laughing hysterically at some endearing story from the life of the departed loved one the next. In the midst of all that sorrow and grief, occasions for thanksgiving are found, friendships are renewed, wrongs forgiven and family bonds strengthened.

Joy and sorrow pop up side by side throughout the Bible. God rejoices in a good world filled with good creatures, yet is so sorrowful over human violence that God comes close to destroying it. Human beings labor under the curse of sin, but God continues to bless and promise. Jesus calls his disciples blessed even as he invites them to follow him in the way of the cross. Jesus was not afraid of suffering, but neither was he morbidly obsessed with it. For Jesus, suffering is simply the cost of joy found in living wholly for God and for neighbor. Discipleship does not promise us the shallow and illusive shadow this world calls “happiness,” an ephemeral condition that depends entirely on one’s changeable outward circumstances. Joy runs far deeper than that. To be joyful is to know that the way of Jesus is the grain of the universe, the future of humanity and the life we will someday share under the gentle reign of God. Joy is found in knowing that God is at work forming in us the mind of Christ. Joy is finally what draws people to the reign of God. Every vibrant, healthy church I have ever encountered (and I have encountered many) is a place of joy, a place where the “J” of the biblical narrative rises up front and center. It is a community of faith where the Bible is rightly interpreted as God’s joyful good news that all things are being reconciled in Christ Jesus. Truly, this joy of the Lord is our strength.

Here is poet Stuart Kestenbaum’s prayer for joy.

Prayer for Joy

What was it we wanted
to say anyhow, like today
when there were all the letters
in my alphabet soup and suddenly
the ‘j’ rises to the surface.
The ‘j’, a letter that might be
great for Scrabble, but not really
used for much else, unless
we need to jump for joy,
and then all of a sudden
it’s there and ready to
help us soar and to open up
our hearts at the same time,
this simple line with a curved bottom,
an upside down cane that helps
us walk in a new way into this
forest of language, where all the letters
are beginning to speak,
finding each other in just
the right combination
to be understood.

c. 2014 by Stuart Kestenbaum. Source: Only Now,(Deerbrook Editions, 2014). In addition to the above mentioned work, Stuart Kestenbaum is the author of Prayers & Run-on Sentences (Deerbook Editions, 2007). He also served as director of the Haystack Mountain School of Crafts on Deer Isle, Maine for twenty-seven years. More of his poems can be found on the Poetry Foundation Webiste.

Nehemiah 8:1-3, 5-6, 8-10
The book of Nehemiah and the book of Ezra (which precedes Nehemiah) are actually one book in the Hebrew Bible. Together they constitute our major source of information about the period following the return of the Jews from exile in Babylon. Talmon, Shemaryahu, “Ezra and Nehemiah,” The Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, Supplementary Vol. (c. 1976 by Abingdon) p. 317. Together these books testify to the resurrection of Judaism for which the backdrop is narrated in First and Second Chronicles. The chronologies in all four books serve to establish the historical ties between Solomon’s temple cult and the rebuilt post exilic temple.

While Ezra, a renowned scribe, is credited with organizing the rebuilding of the temple, Nehemiah, a Jewish governor appointed by the Persian royal court, was chiefly responsible for rebuilding the ruined city of Jerusalem. Together these books tell the inspiring story of a broken people struggling to rebuild their community and live obediently under the covenant with their God in drastically changed circumstances. Our lesson comes at the completion of the wall around Jerusalem and the settlement of the exiles therein. Ezra the scribe calls the people together for a reading of the “law of Moses.” Vs. 1. Though it is probable that the first five books of the Hebrew Scriptures or “Pentateuch” is referenced here, it is not at all clear that the version Ezra/Nehemiah was working with is the same one we have today. Citations found later in chapter 8 do not appear in any of the five books we know as the Pentateuch.

The peoples’ response to this lengthy reading is lamentation and weeping.vs.9.  It is hard to know exactly what was on their mind, but we know that Nehemiah himself wept bitterly at the beginning of the section of this book bearing his name. Nehemiah 1:4. He was weeping over the ruination of Jerusalem and the plight of the returning exiles eeking out an existence in that ravished land. Nehemiah 1:1-3. He recognized, too, that this sorry state was in no small part the consequences of Israel’s sins against her covenant with her God. See Nehemiah 1:4-11. Perhaps the people were weeping for some of the same reasons. They had experienced the ruin of their great nation and it was clear that neither the rebuilt temple nor the reassembled community would rise to the level of Israelite greatness known under the kings of David’s royal line. At first blush, it appears that the best the exiles can hope for is a diminished future as a subject province in the Persian Empire.

Lament is that space between what is and what ought to be-so says Rev. Stephen P. Bouman, former pastor of this congregation and prominent leader in our church. I agree, but must add that sometimes our laments run amok because we don’t always know so well “what ought to be.” As you know, I see a lot of parallels between the post-exilic Jews trying to rebuild their community and the mainline protestant churches (ELCA being one of these) trying to adjust to a post-Christian era. We spend a lot of time mourning all that we have lost. That is not necessarily inappropriate because we have lost a lot that was precious. I am old enough to remember a time when nearly all my friends went to church somewhere. I remember when even small churches like the ones in which I grew up had a youth group numbering between twenty and thirty kids. I have distinct memories of our Sunday School Christmas pageant that involved intense rehearsals of the nativity play conducted each year with near military precision. Growing up in a Christian community with a strong sense of the importance of church, discipleship and witness formed me into the person I am today.

My own children did not come of age in quite the same intense cultural atmosphere of commitment to and involvement in church life. My daughter once remarked to me after a semester of college how “weird” it seemed to everyone she knew that our family went to church every Sunday. Worship is no longer deemed an essential component of the week. It is now an optional activity that some folks practice occasionally and only “weird” people do consistently. My grandchildren will likely grow up in a culture where worship on Sunday is altogether odd. That saddens me.

But lament does not lead to healing if its focus remains solely what has been lost. Nehemiah recognizes that Israel’s past, though glorious in retrospect, was not always characterized by faithfulness to God. Wealth and prosperity bred corruption, idolatry and oppression of the poor. Forgetting that she was once an enslaved people oppressed by the Empire of Egypt, Israel became something of an empire in her own right dominating surrounding nations and even enslaving and impoverishing her own people. The extensive network of statutes in the laws of Moses protecting the poor, the widow and the orphan were largely forgotten. The lure of wealth drew Israel’s ruling class to commercial treaties and military alliances with foreign nations whose false gods and false values soon displaced God’s passion for justice. Perhaps the good old days were not quite so good in God’s eyes.

I think we need to bring Nehemiah’s spirit of searching inquiry to our own laments over the state of our churches. The days of protestant denominational growth surely look like good times to us. Churches were full; financial support was seldom lacking and the Sunday School rooms were packed like subway cars during rush hour. What was not to like? But I am not so sure that these good years were quite so good in God’s eyes. The church in which I was baptized sat on a street with at least a dozen other churches within a half mile of each other (one of which was another Lutheran congregation). I never set foot in any of them and I doubt their members often passed our threshold either. We didn’t need them. Neither did we see any need to express unity in the Body of Christ. We were cocky and confident that our Lutheran brand of Christian faith (actually, our particular flavor of the Lutheran brand) was the best if not the only doctrinally correct form of church. We didn’t want to dilute our doctrinal purity by getting too close to our theologically confused neighbors. We gladly supported missionaries to Africa, but no one would ever have dreamed of extending a worship invitation to the African Americans in the neighborhood just north of us. “They have their own churches,” I remember people saying. It didn’t bother us that our church was just as segregated as the rest of the country in those days. In fact, segregation in general didn’t bother us much. I think God had at least as many reasons for cutting us down to size as for sending Israel into exile.

So maybe we need to expand our understanding of lament to include “that place between where we wish we were and where God needs for us to be.” Through the pain of conquest and exile, Israel learned that faithfulness, not greatness is what God desires. Is God trying to teach the church a similar lesson? Have we learned yet to lament properly? If our sorrow is only yearning for the past, then we have not learned anything. If our quest for change and renewal is nothing more than gimmicky strategies to increase sufficient membership and revenues to keep the ELCA machinery and its institutions running, then our lament has not yet matured into genuine repentance and openness to God’s future. As much “change, transformation and renewal” language as I hear coming down from denominational leadership, a lot of it seems to focus on saving the institution rather than transforming our vision. Much of what passes for “mission strategies” looks to me like the same failed marketing strategies that consultants have been peddling to the business community for decades. (It has been said many times that a consultant is the last straw grasped by a company with one foot in bankruptcy court and the other on a banana peel.)

I could be wrong, but I have a feeling that God is not looking for a powerful church exercising political muscle in the halls of Congress, capturing the attention of the media with its liturgical pomp & circumstance and running dozens of agencies doing every conceivable sort of good. As wonderful as our denominational agencies are and as much good as they do, maybe God does not need them. Rather than an expression of faithful obedience to God’s call, perhaps our desperate efforts to preserve our structures speak more to our own need to prove to ourselves that we are, after all, important. Maybe God needs a church so poor that it has nothing but the Word to depend on. Perhaps a small, broken and scattered church made up of the weak, the foolish, the low and the despised is a more faithful witness to Jesus than the larger, stronger and influential church we are trying so hard to preserve.  But that’s just me and St. Paul. What do we know?

In any event, there is a good word for us here whenever we are ready to hear it. God is not done with us. God has a future for the church of Jesus. It might not be the future we envision or the one we would choose if we could choose. But because God is good, we can be sure that it is the best future for us-and the world to which we have been called to bear witness.

Psalm 19

This wisdom psalm is a favorite of mine. Many commentators suggest that it is actually two psalms, verses 1-6 being a hymn praising God’s glory revealed in nature and verses 7-14 being a prayer which, like the lengthy Psalm 119, praises God’s law. Anderson, Bernhard W., Out of the Depths: The Psalms Speak for us Today, (c. 1983 by Bernhard, W. Anderson, pub. by The Westminster Press) pp. 145-148.  I am not convinced that we are dealing with two psalms here. Both sections praise God’s glory, the first as it is revealed in the created universe and the second as it is revealed to the human heart in God’s laws. Quite possibly, the psalmist did make use of two different poetic fragments to construct this poem. Nevertheless, I believe that a single author skillfully brought these two strands together weaving them into a single theme of praise for God’s glory. So also J.W. Rogerson and J.W. McKay, Psalms 1-50, The Cambridge Bible Commentary  (c. 1977 by Cambridge University Press) p. 86.

We need to exercise care here in our understanding of the words translated from Hebrew as “law” and “precept.” Law or “Torah” is more than a collection of rules and regulations. For Israel, Torah is the shape Israel’s life is intended to take under covenant with the Lord her God. Torah is not an end in itself, but the invitation to a collection of practices that train the heart to perceive God’s voice. Mechanical obedience is not enough to “keep back thy servant from presumptuous sins.” Vs. 13. The psalmist must pray for God to “Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in thy sight.” Vs. 14. The scriptures are not an end in themselves. They were given so that through them we might be drawn into a closer relationship with our God.

1 Corinthians 12:12-31

Paul is continuing a discussion he started at the beginning of this chapter last week. (See post for Sunday, January 17, 2016). To this congregation filled with persons insisting that their own gifts or offices in the church confer upon them a superior status, Paul points out how ludicrous their bickering really is. As I pointed out last week, Paul’s reference to the church as the Body of Christ is not a metaphor. The church really is Christ’s resurrected Body of which we are all members. That being the case, it will not do for the various members of the Body to seek either control or autonomy. Disembodied eyes, ears or hands would be useless for any purpose even if they could survive apart from the rest of the body. The health of the body, and therefore the health of each of its members, requires that all bodily parts function harmoniously in the service of the whole body.

Now you might argue that no church you have ever seen actually functions like a body. You would probably be correct. Certainly the church in Corinth was a long way from anything like a body. Nevertheless, Paul says in verse 27, “Now you are the Body of Christ.” That is because God did not merely take on flesh, but “sinful flesh.” It is God’s intent to indwell less than perfect communities like the congregation in Corinth and like the church at 167 Palisade Avenue where I serve. We are the workshop of the Holy Spirit. God is in our midst shaping us into the kind of people who one day will live as members of a single body. God does that by placing us into communities of people who hurt our feelings, break their promises and disappoint us. How else will we ever learn to forgive as we have been forgiven? How else will we ever learn to preach and to practice reconciliation? The church is not the place you go to get away from it all. If you want to be coddled and pampered, go to the spa. If you want to be sanctified and made holy, go to church.

Luke 4:14-21

According to commentator I. Howard Marshall, this passage is the oldest known account of a synagogue service. Based on ancient documentation preserved from other sources, we have a basic idea of how such worship services were conducted. See Commentary on Luke, I. Howard Marshall (Paternoster Press, Ltd., c. 1978), p. 181. Typically, such services began with public confession of the Shema (“Hear O Israel, the Lord your God. The Lord is one.” Deuteronomy 6:4-9). Thereafter came a series of prayers followed by the readings of scripture. A passage from the Pentateuch (first five books of the Bible) was read by several members of the congregation in turn. There was a lesson from the prophets followed by yet another prayer. Next came the sermon if there was someone in the synagogue competent to give one. The service then closed with prayer. It is not known exactly how universal this format was in Jesus day, much less whether it was used at the particular service described in our lesson. But it could explain why the scroll of the book of Isaiah was handed to Jesus. Moreover, given that Jesus had already gained a reputation as a teacher in other parts, it would not be unusual for some to accept him as a teacher in the synagogue at Nazareth. Equally as well, it would not be unusual for others to question his credentials in view of his evident lack of formal rabbinic training.

The scripture Jesus read in the synagogue is from “Third Isaiah.” See post from Epiphany of our Lord, January 3, 2013. This prophet addressed the exiles returning from Babylon to their homeland in Palestine as they struggled to rebuild their community. This community was indeed poor, captive and blind to any hope for its future. The prophet announces that God has anointed him/her to bring the good news of liberation to these people. Bear in mind that this is a community that has already experienced the failure of a previous prophet’s vision of a glorious return from exile on a garden like pathway through the desert. If they were skeptical of yet another prophet proclaiming yet another such liberation, you can imagine how the congregation at Nazareth some five centuries later must have reacted when Jesus told them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” Some folks must have groaned, “Oh pleeease! Not again!” Others evidently were sufficiently impressed with Jesus to give him a hearing. But everything seems to go south when Jesus makes the point that it was also to gentiles, not just good Jewish folk, that the prophets Elijah and Elisha touched with healing hands. The hostile reaction of the crowd to this message prefigures both Jesus’ rejection by the Jewish leaders in Jerusalem and the rejection of the church’s preaching in many (but not all) synagogues throughout the Roman Empire seen in Luke’s sequel, the Book of Acts.

The remarkable thing about this passage is Jesus’ reading of the scripture from Isaiah. He tells his audience not that the scripture will soon be fulfilled, as did the prophet who uttered it, but that it has been fulfilled. The reign of God has begun with the anointing of Jesus for his mission. The opposition to this message, however, is a clear indicator that this new reign of God takes the shape of the cross in a world bound and determined to reject it.

Sunday, January 17th


Isaiah 62:1-5
Psalm 36:50
I Corinthians 12:1-11
John 2:1-11

Prayer of the Day: Lord God, source of every blessing, you showed forth your glory and led many to faith by the works of your Son, who brought gladness and salvation to his people. Transform us by the Spirit of his love, that we may find our life together in him, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.

There is plenty to ponder in John’s marvelous story about Jesus and the wedding feast at Cana. Some of that is discussed below. But what strikes me more than anything else about this tale is its sheer abundance. John tells us that the six stone jars the servants filled with water, ultimately becoming wine, contained between twenty and thirty gallons. So we are talking between 120 and 180 gallons of wine. And this is not Gallo or Manischewitz. Think Richebourg Grand Cru. I cannot imagine a small Galilean wedding party making a dent in such a huge reservoir of wine.

Jesus seems to be all about abundance in John’s gospel. Where the wine seems to have run out, Jesus comes through with an abundance of wine that is better than the best. Jesus feeds five thousand people in the wilderness with just a few loaves-and there are leftovers. He promises the woman of Samaria enough water to last for all eternity. He offers abundant life. His own life is so full of life-giving wonders that the world itself could never contain the books it would take to tell of them all. The blessed “generosity of numbers” celebrated in Mary Cornish’s poetry is not lost on John the Evangelist.

The gospel of God’s unlimited generosity stands in stark contrast to the constant moaning we hear in the public square these days about the urgent need to eliminate deficits, practice austerity and exercise fiscal restraint. Now I am not opposed to any of that in principle. There is no virtue in waste or extravagance. We would all do well to reign in our insatiable consumer appetites. But it seems to me that the call for fiscal restraint is often issued to those who have the least to restrain. Austerity is more often imposed than practiced in our society and the burden of reducing deficits is usually placed on the backs of those least able to bear it. In this age of unprecedented wealth, we somehow cannot afford to pay a living wage to the people who prepare and serve food for those of us who can afford the luxury of dinning out. Much of the anti-immigrant rhetoric we are hearing these days seems rooted in a fear that there is not enough to be had in this country for everyone as it is. The life boat is already full. In this zero sum game, anybody else’s gain is necessarily my loss. The pie is shrinking. Admitting more to the table will only hasten its inevitable disappearance.

By contrast, Jesus promises abundance for all. The specter of scarcity driving so much of our politics, poisoning our relationships with our neighbors and killing our capacity for compassion has no place in God’s reign of abundance. God’s table is never bare, nor is it lacking in space for any who come hungry and thirsty. Disciples of Jesus know that generosity looks not to the limits of our own resources, but to the limitless promises of God to provide all that we need and so much more. The disciples saw more in the miracle at Cana than a magic trick. They recognized the dawn of the messianic age; the in-breaking of abundant and eternal life. They got “a foretaste of the feast to come” where the best wine just keeps on flowing.

Here’s the poem by Mary Cornish I alluded to above.


I like the generosity of numbers.
The way, for example,
they are willing to count
anything or anyone:
two pickles, one door to the room,
eight dancers dressed as swans.

I like the domesticity of addition—
add two cups of milk and stir—
the sense of plenty: six plums
on the ground, three more
falling from the tree.

And multiplication’s school
of fish times fish,
whose silver bodies breed
beneath the shadow
of a boat.

Even subtraction is never loss,
just addition somewhere else:
five sparrows take away two,
the two in someone else’s
garden now.

There’s an amplitude to long division,
as it opens Chinese take-out
box by paper box,
inside every folded cookie
a new fortune.

And I never fail to be surprised
by the gift of an odd remainder,
footloose at the end:
forty-seven divided by eleven equals four,
with three remaining.

Three boys beyond their mother’s call,
two Italians off to the sea,
one sock that isn’t anywhere you look.

Source: Red Studio, (c. 2007 by Mary Cornish). Mary Cornish is a former Wallace Stegner Fellow. She lives in Bellingham, Washington, where she teaches creative writing at Western Washington University. In addition to her poetry, Cornish has written and illustrated a number of children’s books. I encourage you to read more about Cornish and her work at the website for the Poetry Foundation.

Isaiah 62:1-5

This reading comes to us from the third section of the book of Isaiah. (For a more thorough background on the Book of Isaiah generally, see my post for Sunday, January 3rd, Epiphany of our Lord;  See also the article of Professor Fred Gaiser of Luther Seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota at enterthebible.org. The prophet is speaking to the dispirited band of Jews who answered the call to return from their exile in Babylon and rebuild the ruined city of Jerusalem and its temple. These returning exiles no doubt left Babylon in high hopes of accomplishing their task of reconstruction in short order. The land to which they returned, however, was inhabited by peoples who now considered it their home and did not desire to see Jerusalem rebuilt. The odds of these returning settlers achieving their grand plans were long at best. Decades after the Jews began to return to Palestine, the city of Jerusalem was still in ruins and rebuilding of the temple had been abandoned even before the foundation had been completed.

So you can see why the prophet’s grand vision of Jerusalem as “a crown of beauty in the hand of the Lord and a royal diadem in the hand of your God” hardly comported with the reality experienced by his or her audience. Of course I do not know how this prophet was received, but I suspect that this preaching might have generated some hostility. After all, it was another prophet, the second Isaiah, whose preaching motivated these people to leave what was now their home in Babylon and return to Palestine, a land that most of them knew only from the stories of their elders. The miraculous “highway through the wilderness” promised by second Isaiah did not materialize. The reconstruction of Jerusalem and the temple proved enormously more difficult and complex than they had expected. They had exchanged the relative security of their Babylonian community in exile for an environment of hardship, danger and disappointment.  That is what comes of listening to prophets.

In many respects, this is the life of prophets in every age. These are people of vision speaking of realities that do not yet appear. Sometimes, like Jeremiah, the prophet must speak hard and fearful truths that people do not want to see. Other times the prophet is called upon to speak words of promise to a people whose hopes have been crushed to many times to trust words of comfort and glad tidings. Obviously, our prophet fits into the latter category. He or she is preaching to a people who have forgotten how to hope and who no longer believe that they have a future.

Were the words of this prophet fulfilled? In some respects, we have to say yes. The fact that Jerusalem and the temple were rebuilt is testimony to the effectiveness of the prophet’s ministry. But in another sense, the prophecy remains unfulfilled. The temple that was rebuilt under Ezra and Nehemiah did not match the splendor of Solomon’s temple which it was meant to replace. Ezra 3:10-13. Jerusalem remains to this day, not the center of peace and justice for which the prophet hoped, but a flashpoint for conflict and violence. So we might be tempted to say that the prophet’s critics were right and that his or her visions were merely pipe dreams. But, as my grandfather would have said, “Day’s not over yet.” John of Patmos reminds us that the new Jerusalem where God will dwell among human beings is yet to come. Revelation 21:1-22:5. Moreover, as I said in my post for Sunday, January 3rd Epiphany of our Lord, God may yet have a saving and redeeming role for the brick and mortar Jerusalem that stands in Palestine today.

Psalm 36:5-10

This psalm of trust has been the victim of censorship by the lectionary police. Therefore, I am giving you the whole psalm to read so that you can appreciate what is really going on here. The psalm begins with a graphic description of evil people who, confident that they need not fear any consequences of their evil behavior, boldly concoct ever more mischief. Perhaps the folks who gave us the lectionary felt that we should not dwell upon evil people and the harm they do, but rather focus on the faithfulness of God that is extolled throughout verses 5-10. “Accentuate the positive” as the song goes. But in so doing, I think we lose the thrust of what the psalmist is telling us.

Let’s begin with the obvious. There are wicked people in the world. I am not talking about people who make snide remarks about your potato salad at the church supper or your neighbor who lets her dog do his business at the edge of your yard and doesn’t bother to clean it up. These folks are thoughtless and rude, but not evil. I am talking Osama Bin Laden evil here. I am talking about the one who “in his bed plots how best to do mischief-” (see vs. 4) like shooting down school children with semi-automatic rifles. How does one deal with evil like that?

According to NRA Executive Vice President Wayne LaPierre, “The only way to stop a bad guy with a gun is with a good guy with a gun.” Well, the psalmist does not agree. “You [God] save humans and animals alike.” “All people take refuge in the shadow of your wings…for with you is the fountain of life.” The psalmist makes it clear that God’s “righteousness is like the mighty mountains” and God’s “judgments are like the great deep.” It is not for human beings to take judgment into their own hands and determine who must be punished, who must live and who must die. The “good guys” according to this psalm are those who do not carry weapons or trust in them but rely wholly upon God. That is why the prayer concludes with verses 11-12 (also conveniently omitted) in which the psalmist asks for God’s protection against the wicked.

Once again, this prayer strikes a dissonant chord in our culture of violence that has been indoctrinated by westerns and police dramas in which the underlying message is exactly that of Mr. LaPierre: the only way to stop violence is with more violence; the answer to gun violence in our schools is more guns in school, etc. The church’s story is altogether different. Our hero is the man who warns us that all who take the sword (good guys and bad guys alike) perish by the sword. Our role model is the man who refused to retaliate or exercise the right of self defense when confronted with deadly force. This is why, once again, I recommend two psalms each day just like vitamins, one in the morning and one at night. They help to immunize us against cultural programming and form in us the mind of Christ.

I Corinthians 12:1-11

The church at Corinth was a congregation only the Apostle Paul could love. It had every conceivable problem a church could have. It had divisive factions; power struggles; sex scandals; doctrinal disputes; arguments over worship practices; and, of course, money issues. Yet remarkably, Paul can say to this messed up, 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 “You could be the Body of Christ if you would just get your act together!” No, Paul is emphatic that the church at Corinth is the Body of Christ even now, with all its warts and blemishes. This is no metaphor.  Paul means for the church to understand that it is Jesus’ resurrected Body. Nothing Paul says makes any sense until you get that.

In this Sunday’s lesson the issue is spiritual gifts. First off, understand that Paul is not using the term “spiritual” in the wishy washy new age sense that we so often hear it today-i.e., “I’m spiritual, but not religious.” (Whatever that means.) When Paul speaks of the spiritual, he is speaking explicitly about the Spirit of Jesus. That Spirit can be experienced only through the intimate knowing of Jesus. Jesus is known through communion with his Body, the church. Thus, it is impossible to speak of obedience to Jesus apart from communion with his Body. The church is the Body of Jesus precisely because it is animated by the Spirit of Jesus. Therefore, every ethical decision, every doctrinal teaching, every matter of church administration, every aspect of worship boils down to what does or does not build up the unity and health of Christ’s Body.

So now we come down to the specific issue at hand: “spiritual gifts” or gifts given to individual members of the Body of Christ for the building up of that Body. There is no hierarchy in the church for Paul. The issue is never “who is in charge.” Jesus is the Head of the church. He alone is in charge. The rest of us are all members of the Body.  A little finger might not seem to be particularly important-until it gets slammed in the car door. Suddenly, the least important part of the body is commanding center stage! So also in the Body of Christ, the prominence of any person’s gift at any particular time depends upon what is happening. When determining the short term management of a large monetary gift to the church, someone with administrative skill in managing funds is critical. Such persons know how to transfer property quickly, efficiently and without loss to a place where it can appreciate in value as the church decides how to use it. However, when it comes to long range management of these funds, different gifts are required. The mission of the church is not to maximize income on its investments, but to use its resources to build up the Body of Christ and witness to the reign of God. To make faithful use of the church’s resources to these ends, the gift of prophetic vision is required. The gift of discernment is necessary also to evaluate such visions and find within them the call and command of Jesus. When all members of the church work together using their unique gifts to build up the Body of Christ, the gifts complement each other.

Unfortunately, such harmony was not the prevailing mood at Corinth. Certain individuals were convinced that their gifts conferred upon them greater status and authority. They were using their gifts and abilities to advance their own interests instead of building up the church. So Paul begins in these verses an extended discussion about the proper use of the gifts the Holy Spirit gives to each of member of the Body of Christ. In the first place, all members of the Body are gifted and their gifts are necessary to the proper functioning of that Body. So the church must constantly ask itself whether it is recognizing the gifts among its members. Second, it matters not which gift a person has, but how the gift is used. Paul makes it clear that all gifts must be used for the common good of the whole church. In the example of the monetary gift, a short term manager who loses sight of the big picture and is concerned only with maximizing returns on investment rather than growing the ministry of the church is no longer serving the Body. So also the visionary with great plans for the church’s resources who is unwilling to submit his or her vision to the ministry of discernment within the Body is no longer building up the Body. Third, there is no hierarchy of gifts.  Hierarchy is antithetical to the well-being of the church.

John 2:1-11

This makes for a delightful story, simple in the telling yet layered and textured. Jesus and his family are invited to a wedding feast. This is no small thing. A wedding is about the closest thing to a holiday little Galilean towns ever know.  One of the town’s few animals will be slaughtered and roasted. Wine will be served in abundance. For once everyone will eat and drink freely-as though they were wealthy. There will be singing, dancing and joy. Weddings provide an island of sheer jubilation in this ocean of back-breaking work, grinding poverty and ever-present hunger that the common people of Galilee know as life. Small wonder, then, that Jesus frequently used the image of the wedding feast to describe the reign of God. It is a time when sorrows are forgotten; tears wiped away; food, wine and dancing can be had in abundance. Wedding feasts are a sign of what God intends for human life. A wedding is a defiant “no” to what is and a yearning expression of hope for what might be. So I believe that Jesus’ quiet miracle for the preservation of a wedding feast is a more profound sign than might first appear.

Jesus’ mother (John never refers to her as Mary) calls to Jesus’ attention the situation with the wine. “What is that to us?” Jesus responds. That strikes me as a reasonable response. This is not their wedding and, as far as we know, Jesus and his mother had no part in planning it. Let the family of the bride worry about the state of the wine. Jesus’ mother does not argue the point. She simply instructs the servants with whom she has been conversing to follow Jesus’ directions. Mom seems determined to get her son involved, seemingly confident that he can be of assistance. I would very much like to know what was in Mary’s mind. What was she expecting of Jesus? A miracle? This would seem unlikely. As far as we know from John’s perspective, Jesus has never before performed any miracles. Nevertheless, Mary feels that it is important for Jesus know that the wine has run short and she seems certain that he will be able to do something about it.

The stone jars for use in purification were, in all likelihood, provided for the benefit of the guests containing water “intended to make the participating guests worthy by ritual lustration, to share in the solemnities of the marriage feast.” Marsh, John, Saint John, The Pelican New Testament Commentaries (c. 1968 by John Marsh, pub. by Penguin Books, Ltd.) p. 145. As the feast was already underway, the water in the jars had been used up so that the jars were now empty. Marsh goes on to suggest that the number six (one less than the perfect number of seven) suggests the inadequacy of Judaism’s religious practices. Professor Raymond Brown, however, finds this reading somewhat far-fetched and I tend to agree with him. Brown, Raymond E., The Gospel of John I-XII, The Anchor Bible, Vol, 29 (c. 1966 by Doubleday) p. 100. That they were designated for purification, however, emphasizes the life giving potency of the sign for all who see it and believe. Moreover, the Hebrew Scriptures frequently speak of the messianic kingdom as a place where wine flows freely and abundantly. See, e.g., Amos 9:13-14; Hosea 14:7; Jeremiah 31:12.

The primary focus, however, should be on what John tells us about the purpose and effect of this miracle, namely, that through this act Jesus’ glory was revealed and his disciples believed in him. Apparently, this miracle was not for public consumption. Nobody, save Jesus and the servants on duty at the wedding, knew how there suddenly came to be such an abundance of such very fine wine. From all I can tell, neither the wedding planner nor the newly married couple was aware that the celebration was in jeopardy or that Jesus had saved it. The disciples knew, however, and that seems to be the whole point. Jesus would have his disciples know that he has come to make sure the wedding feast of the Lamb continues. So also should every joyous wedding feast that is a “foretaste of the feast to come.” No wedding feast will die of privation on Jesus’ watch.

Sunday, February 22nd



Genesis 9:8-17
Psalm 25:1-10
1 Peter 3:18-22
Mark 1:9-15

PRAYER OF THE DAY: Holy God, heavenly Father, in the waters of the flood you saved the chosen, and in the wilderness of temptation you protected your Son from sin. Renew us in the gift of baptism. May your holy angels be with us, that the wicked foe may have no power over us, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

We lost the war against terror the minute it was declared. By christening it “the war against terror,” we acknowledged that our enemies terrify us. Furthermore, what terrifies us most is our enemies’ willingness, indeed, eagerness to die in the fight. That willingness renders impotent all of our superior military might. “National security” through military readiness rests on the premise that our enemies want to live just as badly as we do. If they know that attacking us will earn them a swift and deadly reprisal, they will resist the impulse to do us wrong. But what if the enemy does not fear death? What if the enemy views death in the struggle as a glorious testimony to his or her cause? What if our enemies celebrate the death of their comrades rather than lowering the flag half mast and entering into collective acts of mourning? What if they regard their losses as triumphs rather than tragedies? Threats of firepower are useless against an aggressor willing to strap a bomb onto his body and detonate.

It was this very willingness to die that rendered the Roman Empire impotent in the face of the early church. Rome maintained its supremacy by assertion of its overwhelming power and its willingness to use it ruthlessly. The cross was the ultimate symbol of terror. The crucifixion of rebels in public sent a very clear message. Don’t even think about messing with us. It worked too-as long as Rome’s subjects continued to value their lives above all else. But then one day a little known rabbi from a backwater province of the Roman Empire went willingly to the cross. He did that because he loved the kingdom of his heavenly Father more than his life. He was not the last. More would follow. Members of this new community of believers in the rabbi from Nazareth all loved the kingdom he proclaimed more than they feared the empire. They turned the empire’s symbol of terror into a symbol of victory over death. No torture, no threat of violence could deter them. Rome had no leverage against this people who had lost their fear of death. Rome’s legions were powerless against this new threat to its supremacy.

In the same way, I believe we are learning that raw power cannot overcome the likes of Al qaeda, ISIS, Al Shabaab and Boko Haram. They know very well that we outnumber, out gun and out money them. They understand that we can kill more of them than they can kill of us. But they also know that, when push comes to shove, we want desperately to live. We want to be safe and secure. They know they can take that away from us. They already have. No matter how many bombs we drop and no matter how many of their people we kill, they know that they have us running scared. We are the ones hiding behind security measures that affect every aspect of our lives from traveling by air to renewing our driver license. We are the ones looking over our shoulders, panicking whenever we notice an abandoned back pack and fretting over the unstable financial markets created by their disruptive acts. The war against terror is already lost because we are afraid and they are not.

This week disciples of Jesus will be receiving the sign of the cross in ashes upon their foreheads. Let’s stop and ponder what this might mean in the context of a fruitless war against terror that was lost the day it began. We are dust and to dust we return. But we worship the God who once breathed the spirit of life into lifeless dust and formed a living being. So death is not the worst thing that can happen to us. Kayla Mueller, the young woman who died recently while a captive of ISIS, was one of the few people who understood this. Kayla joined the campus Christian ministry at Northern Arizona University where she immersed herself in social action. She worked nights at a women’s shelter as a volunteer and started a chapter of Amnesty International on her campus. She traveled to Israel where she spent a summer volunteering at a camp for young African refugees. While there, she traveled to Israel’s occupied territories to show support for Palestinians. Kayla went on humanitarian missions to Guatemala and India. She knew well the risks she was taking when she traveled to Turkey and finally to Syria to work among refugees of that troubled region. Little has been said in the media about Kayla’s faith, but an excerpt from one of her writings speaks volumes: “I find God in suffering,” she wrote. “I’ve known for some time what my life’s work is, using my hands as tools to relieve suffering.” “Remembering the remarkable Kayla Mueller” by Dana Milbank, The Washington Post, February 13, 2015.

While certainly sad and regrettable, Kayla’s death was not tragic. It was, rather, a testament to the precious hope for which she lived. Dr. Martin Luther King once remarked that a man for whom nothing is worth dying has nothing for which to live. Jesus said much the same thing when he told his disciples that whoever seeks to save life must be ready to lose it; and whoever loses life for the sake of the good news of the kingdom of heaven will surely gain it back again. The truth of the matter is that terrorism exists only for terrified people. Once death has lost its sting, terrorism loses all leverage. The ashes on our foreheads remind us that death is no tragedy. The real tragedy is life lived in persistent fear of death. That is the bondage from which Jesus frees us.

So while I have little hope for any positive outcome to the so-called war on terror, I am greatly inspired by Kayla Mueller and the millions of unsung heroes of faith like her who strap onto their bodies the belt of truth, the breastplate of righteousness, the shoes of peace, the shield of faith, the helmet of salvation, the sword of the spirit and then travel to the most violent places on the face of the earth to detonate for the gentle and peaceful reign of God. See Ephesians 6:13-17. Against faithful disciples wielding such weapons neither the terror of Rome, the might of nation states nor the violence of extremists can hope to prevail.

Genesis 9:8-17

The first eleven chapters of Genesis are best understood as an “overture” to the biblical story of Israel, beginning with the call of Abram and Sarah in Genesis 12:1-3. There God calls Abram to leave everything behind and follow God’s leading into a land that will one day belong to his descendants. More importantly, Abram’s descendants are to become a nation by which all nations will find blessing. As Professor Terence Fretheim points out, “[t]he first eleven chapters of Genesis explain in advance why all the families of the earth need the blessing of God. [They] define the universal condition of sin that explains Israel’s particular history. Why God chose Israel, the election of the people of Israel, has meaning only against this universal background. Israel can make sense of her own history only in relation to God’s creation, judgment, and preservation of all mankind.” Fretheim, Terence, Creation, Fall, and Flood, Tower Books, (c. 1969 by Augsburg Publishing House) pp. 17-18. These themes of creation, judgment and preservation are introduced and interwoven into the opening chapters of Genesis. It is important to understand from the start that judgment always serves God’s larger aims of creation and preservation. Even that most terrible of all judgments, the Great Food, serves in the end to preserve the earth through the establishment of a new covenant between God and God’s creation.

The Flood story found in Genesis 6-9:19 is a complex and layered narrative put together from two different and sometimes conflicting versions of the event. For some background on the composition of the first five books of the Bible generally, see the online article on the Documentary Hypothesis I have cited previously. Here it is enough to note that the full text is far too long for reading in a typical protestant worship service. That is unfortunate, because our lesson cannot be appreciated fully apart from an understanding of the larger narrative. The story begins with God’s observation that “the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually.” Genesis 6:5. God was “sorry that he had made man on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart. So the Lord said, ‘I will blot out man whom I have created from the face of the ground, man and beast and creeping things and birds of the air, for I am sorry that I have made them.’” Genesis 6:6-7. There are a couple of things worth noting here. First, though God’s grief is induced by human evil, God resolves to blot out not only human beings, but all other creatures as well. The animals appear to be “collateral damage.” Like non-combatants who, through no fault of their own, happen to be standing in front of a military target, the animals will be caught in the crossfire of God’s war on humanity. Tragic and unfair as it may be, this is war after all. Any good Niebuhrian realist would understand.

Second, there is one slight wrinkle. “Noah found favor in the eyes of the Lord.” Genesis 6:8. Surely Noah at least must be saved. Of course, because “it is not good for the human being to be alone” (Genesis 2:18), it will not do to let Noah’s wife and children perish in the coming judgment. Furthermore, the animals are both partners and sustainers of Noah’s existence. So God commands Noah to build an “ark” to shelter himself, his family and two pairs of each animal (or seven, depending on the source) throughout the coming flood. If you read with care Genesis 6:14-22, you will discover that the “ark” Noah was commanded to build is definitely not a large ship. It was, as the term implies, a great enclosed box. That is precisely what was required under the circumstances.

According to the first creation account in Genesis 1:1-2:4, God placed the earth between two huge vaults of water, one “above the heavens” and the other “under the earth.” Genesis 1:7-9. So when we read in Genesis 7:11-12 about how the “fountains of the great deep burst forth and the windows of heaven were opened,” it becomes clear that the flood was not simply an abnormally heavy rainfall that covered the earth with water. God was dismantling the infrastructure of creation, allowing the waters to prevail over the earth and so returning everything to a “formless void.” Genesis 2:2. Obviously, a boat would have been useless in such a catastrophe!

But in the middle of God’s demolition project, something remarkable happens. “God remembered Noah and all the beasts and all the cattle that were with him in the ark.” Genesis 8:1. Where will Noah, his family and the animals be when there is no more being? How can they live without the creation which once sustained them? It seems God must choose between saving the last of his creatures and carrying out his design to blot out all that he has made. It is at this point that God drives the waters from the face of the earth with a wind, shuts up the fountains of the deep and closes the windows of heaven. Genesis 8:1-3. God turns away from God’s destructive intent. God reverses course and heals the creation. That is the context for Sunday’s lesson. God makes a covenant with the whole creation, promising “never again shall all flesh be cut off by the waters of a flood, and never again shall there be a flood to destroy the earth.” Genesis 9:11. Again, this is more than just a promise to limit the destructiveness of ordinary weather phenomenon. God is promising never to exercise the “nuclear option” against creation. That is why all of the Bible banging nincompoops threatening us with “Left Behind” type scenarios are chuck full of buffalo chips. At the dawn of history God lay down God’s bow and determined once and for all not to be the sort of angry, vengeful, mean spirited deity that most of humanity makes him out to be.

I have said many times that pacifism is not a tangential subtheme in the scriptures, inspirational for monks, nuns and starry eyed idealists but of no use to practical “worldly” Christians. To the contrary, God’s unequivocal rejection of violence is at the heart of the Hebrew Scriptural witness. It is founded in God’s refusal to be a God who reigns through the exercise or threat of violence. God will suffer violence rather than inflicting it upon his creation. You might say that here, in the very first covenant made with all creation, God first takes up the way of the cross. That way will be embodied in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.

Psalm 25:1-10

This is another of the “acrostic” psalms. The others are Psalm 119; Psalm 9; Psalm 10; Psalm 34; Psalm 37; Psalm 111; Psalm 112; and Psalm 145. The first word of the first verse begins with the first letter in the Hebrew alphabet. The first word of the second verse begins with the second letter and so on through the alphabet. In addition to assisting a new reader in learning her ABCs, this style of composition assists in memorization of the psalm. Memorization is critical in a culture where the vast majority lack reading skills and books are readily available only to priests. Stylistic similarities between this psalm and Psalm 34 suggest that they might have been composed by the same author, though I would exercise caution in making such a judgment. The stylistic conventions used by the psalmists were very likely shared widely so that their appearance in multiple psalms by different authors would not be unexpected.

The psalm is a prayer for salvation and protection from enemies-something you would not learn unless you read the entire psalm. Verses 1-10, which make up this Sunday’s reading, constitute an affirmation of trust in God’s promises. This trust in God’s faithfulness is the basis for the psalmist’s plea for help. The psalmist knows that God is the protector of the helpless and of those who trust in God’s promises. The psalmist is well aware of God’s long history of faithfulness to Israel and so feels confident in calling upon God for assistance in his or her own particular situation.

Particularly striking to me is the plea, “Do not remember the sins of my youth or my transgressions; according to your steadfast love remember me, for your goodness’ sake, O Lord!” vs. 7. This is a prayer that God’s remembrance of the psalmist will be shaped not by recollection of his or her sins, but by God’s loving kindness. The psalmist’s sins cannot be erased. They have left scars on the psalmist’s life and still threaten to compromise his or her relationship with God. But memory is more than just a filing drawer full of all things past. Healthy memory is shaped as much by the present and future as by the past. A heartfelt apology opens the way to forgiveness and reconciliation. Where there is reconciliation, memories of hurt, betrayal and insult lose their sting. If they are remembered at all, they will be recalled as the prelude to a renewed and strengthened relationship. They will be understood as something that has not been allowed to define the relationship going forward. Just as in our lesson from Genesis God would not allow human sin to define God’s relationship to his creation, so by virtue of our baptism, we are not remembered merely as sinners, but as sinners redeemed by the death and resurrection of Jesus.

1 Peter 3:18-22

For my more extensive comments on this section generally, see my post of Sunday, May 25, 2014. Sunday’s reading is one of the more obscure snippets of scripture. It is perhaps the only New Testament reference to Jesus’ descent into hell (or to the dead, if you prefer) referenced in the Apostle’s Creed. To begin with, I believe it is important to point out that “1 Peter 3:18 is not saying that Christ’s body died but his soul was resurrected; it is saying that although from a human point of view he was put to death, he was given life in and by the power of God’s Holy Spirit, in the realm where death has no dominion. Though it may appear that the religious and civil authorities won, the real victory belongs to God.” Judith Jones, Professor of Religion, Wartburg College and St. Andrews Episcopal Church, Waverly, Iowa on workingpreacher.org. The “angels, authorities and powers” made subject to Jesus are not mere abstractions. As pointed out by Walter Wink, the “powers and authorities” are embodiments of the “domination system” of oppression upheld by the myth of “redemptive violence.” Wink, Walter, The Powers that Be, (c. 1998 by Augsburg Fortress) pp. 57-62. In Jesus’ day and in that of the New Testament church, these powers consisted mainly of the Roman Empire and its bureaucratic/militaristic machinery. Today these authorities and powers are frequently embodied in the governments of nation states, in the corporate powers controlling health care, access to capital and exploitation of the earth’s resources and in a consumer culture dictating our values and priorities.

Our understanding of Jesus’ descent into hell therefore requires us to refrain from over spiritualizing. “Hell” is less a place of eternal punishment for disembodied souls as it is the position of all who find themselves victims of the domination system. It is the place of those branded “sinners” by the religious establishment; “unclean” by reason of sickness; “godless and ignorant” by virtue of their lack of access to education; “idle” because they are unable to find employment; abandoned by God as evidenced by their shameful and public execution under the laws of the state. These are the imprisoned ones for whom Jesus descended into hell in order to proclaim the good news of God’s triumph over the powers that enslave them.

I firmly believe that Jesus’ descent into hell belongs in the Creed. Moreover, I favor retaining the word “hell” rather than “descent to the dead,” notwithstanding the fact that a more literal translation of the Greek text favors the latter. “Hell” aptly describes what a high school boy often experiences when he discovers that he is gay and has no safe place even to talk about his feelings, fears and hopes. It describes the gut wrenching terror felt by the parent of a child with cancer whose insurance company denies coverage for life saving treatment. Hell is what returning soldiers experience when they discover that they cannot leave the horrors of war buried in the sands of Iraq or the caves of Afghanistan as they try to resume civilian life as usual. People who say there is no hell have never seen what a teenage girl can do to her body after being convinced by pop culture’s false notions of beauty that she is ugly. The bad news is that hell is real. The good news is that Jesus has descended into that godforsaken place to break its hold over the spirits imprisoned there.

Mark 1:9-15

Matthew and Luke both tell us in detail about the temptations Jesus faced. Matthew 4:1-11; Luke 4:1-12. Mark tells us nothing more than that Jesus was tempted by the devil for forty days. As we have already seen, Mark’s gospel has Jesus moving with urgency and breakneck speed. Jesus goes “immediately” from one place to the next, one confrontation to the next. Suddenly, in the midst of this maddening pace of his life and ministry, Jesus is driven out to live in the wilderness for forty days.

I don’t know, but I suspect that one temptation Jesus faced was to get himself out of the wilderness prematurely. Who can blame him? Forty days is a long time to be out in the wilds where there is no cell phone reception, no internet access and no hope of getting anything productive accomplished. I suspect that Jesus wanted some direction, some sense that he was getting somewhere, some idea of how far he had to go and how much longer it was going to take. But when you are in the wilderness, you can only take each day as it comes. You will get there when you get there-wherever “there” is. In the meantime, you have to adapt to whatever terrain you pass though, deal with whatever wild beasts come your way and be content with whatever you find along the way to satisfy your needs. That sounds like a heck of a way to live.

Yet it describes well the way many of us live for much of our lives. For many of us, grief is a kind of wilderness. If I have learned anything about grieving over the years it is this: grief takes a different shape for each loss and every individual’s journey through it is unique. I never say to a grieving person, “I know what you are going through” because, in fact, I do not. After more than three years, I still struggle with the loss of my parents. That grief has only recently been compounded by the death of my grandson last summer. I am still not back to normal, whatever normal may be. I doubt that I ever will be normal again, if normal is the way I was before all of these losses occurred. There is a strong presumption out there in society that I ought to be “over” all this by now. If not, then I ought to seek counseling, therapy or something else to “fix” what is wrong with me and get me back up to speed. “It’s time to move on.” That is the common modern mantra. But people who live in the wilderness understand that life cannot be conformed to schedules, “to do” lists and strategic planning. They know that there are powers much greater than self in the universe and that they are as much driven as they are driving.

Mark does give us one small piece of information we don’t find in Matthew or Luke. We read that Jesus was “with the wild beasts.” Vs. 13. If you are going to spend any time in the wilderness, the true wilderness, you need to be comfortable with the idea of being always in the presence of wild, carnivorous beasts. That takes some getting used to, because our culture is geared toward fencing out wild beasts. We desperately want to live in a secure, gated neighborhood where tragedies don’t occur, where families never fracture, where people never die. That is why people on magazine covers, even the AARP bulletin, are young and vibrant rather than old and infirm. That is why sitcom families always manage to work out all their problems in sixty short minutes-less the commercials. That is why we treat sadness with a trip to Disney World, a shot of scotch or medication rather than embracing and trying to understand it. You have a right to be happy. It’s written into the Declaration of Independence. So if you are not happy, if you are not satisfied, if you are not content in your marriage, your job or your neighborhood, something must be wrong. Something needs to be fixed. You need to get yourself a life coach. You need to get out of the wilderness and back on track.

It is significant, I believe, that Jesus’ temptation comes hard on the heels of his baptism. To be told that you are God’s child is a mind blowing experience. It is not surprising that Jesus would need at least forty days to sort all of that out and decide what it means. Perhaps that is what baptism is like (or should be like) for all of us. We are ripped out of the fabric of our family, cultural and societal identities and reborn into this new regime in which God alone reigns. We spend the rest of our lives figuring out what that means. The Lenten journey affords us a good opportunity for reminding ourselves that we are in many respects still lost in the wilderness, still clueless about the kingdom and have much to learn from Jesus.

Sunday, February 15th


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

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

Transfiguration is the point of transition from Epiphany into Lent. It is the point at which Jesus’ true identity becomes as clear to us as it ever will be. “This is my beloved Son.” But it is not enough simply to know who Jesus is, how to address him and how to speak  about him in a doctrinally correct manner. That is not yet knowing Jesus, and knowing Jesus is the end point. “And this,” says Saint John, “is eternal life, that they know thee the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom thou hast sent.” John 17:3. God would have us know Jesus as he is known by his Heavenly Father. Such “knowledge” is more than acquisition of facts. Knowing Jesus in this way is less like learning the catechism and more like becoming a friend.

I believe there is no more pernicious heresy than the notion that disciples of Jesus are a “people of the book.” We are not a people of the book, but a people of the risen Christ. For this reason, I have become less and less comfortable over the years referring to the Bible as the Word of God. In fact, there are many voices speaking in the Bible, including the voice of the devil. The Bible contains prayers demanding the death of one’s enemies and even crying out for the slaughter of their infant children. The Bible contains regulations governing slavery and restrictions on woman and children that not even the strictest Biblical literalist would promote. The Bible can and has in fact led people to do perfectly abominable things. It’s a dangerous book. Sometimes I question the wisdom of placing the Bible into the hands of common people. I hasten to add, however, that the clergy have not always made such good use of the Bible either.

If we are going to refer to the Bible as God’s Word, we need to do that in a very qualified sense. First and foremost, the Word of God must be understood, not as a book, but as a person. Jesus is God’s Word made flesh. Disciples of Jesus therefore can say that the Bible is God’s Word because and only because it is a reliable witness to Jesus. In that respect and only in that respect, I would go so far as to say the Bible is inerrant and infallible (though I prefer the words “faithful and trustworthy”). The Bible can be trusted to speak truthfully about Jesus.

But the Bible does more than give us facts about Jesus and summaries of his teachings. The Bible draws us into relationship with Jesus. The Bible was never designed to answer all the questions we might have about Jesus. Like a movie trailer, it makes us hungry for more, anxious to see the full drama unfold, eager to become better acquainted with this man who speaks in jokes and parables about eternity; who is as much at home feasting in the house of a Pharisee as he is swapping stories with fishermen and drinking with tax collectors.

To be clear, I do not mean to say that by focusing on Jesus the Hebrew Scriptures are to be discarded, ignored or relegated to second class status. It is impossible to understand Jesus apart from the witness of the Hebrew Scriptures that shaped him. Jesus grew up saturated with Torah and inseparably tied to the community that revolved around it. His heart was set on fire by the preaching of the prophets. He prayed the Psalms up to the day of his death. Jesus will not have one letter of the law disregarded. But that is not to say that every sentence in scripture (whether in the Hebrew Scriptures or the New Testament) is God’s command to me at this time and in this place. Nor is it to say that each passage of scripture is of equal weight in every circumstance. That is not what Jesus taught. He was very clear that the greatest commandments are to love God with all one’s being and to love the neighbor as oneself. This love is not some fuzzy, new age concept. “In this the love of God was made manifest to us,” says Saint John, “that God sent his only Son into the world that we might live through him.” I John 4:9. Love always takes the shape of the neighbor’s need. Every other commandment must be interpreted or perhaps even set aside in the service of love.

Jesus prays for his disciples that “the love with which thou [Father] hast loved me may be in them, and I in them.” John 17:26. God would have us love Jesus and one another with the same love that binds the Trinity together. True knowledge equates with genuine love. Getting to know Jesus, then, is an eternal adventure. The more we know Jesus, the more we recognize how much we have yet to learn. Just when we think we have him figured out, he throws another surprise at us. Whenever we open the Bible, these words should be ringing in our ears: “This is my beloved Son. Listen to him.”

2 Kings 2:1-12

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

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

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

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

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

Psalm 50:1-6

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

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

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

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

2 Corinthians 4:3-6

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

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

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

Mark 9:2-9

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

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

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

The cloud again evokes the Exodus theophany. It is “par excellence the vehicle of God’s Shekinah and the medium in and through which he manifested himself” in the Hebrew Scriptures. Nineham, infra, p. 235. See Exodus 16:10; Exodus 19:9-16; Exodus 24:15-18 and Numbers 14:10. The voice from the cloud focuses the reader’s attention (and that of the disciples as well) on Jesus. “This is my Son”-the same word spoken to Jesus at his baptism (Mark 1:11) is repeated here with an emphatic, perhaps desperate command/plea: “Listen to him.” This is the whole point of the story. It reaffirms to some extent what has already been established in the account of Peter’s confession in Chapter 8. Jesus is not to be identified with John the Baptist, Elijah, Moses or any other prophet. He is uniquely God’s Son and the disciples are to listen to him. Hooker, Morna D., The Gospel According to Saint Mark, Black’s New Testament Commentaries (c. 1991 by Morna D. Hooker, pub. by Hendrickson Publishers, Inc.) pp. 217-218.

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

Sunday, January 25th


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jonah 3:1-5, 10

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

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

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

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

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

Psalm 62:5-12

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

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

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

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

1 Corinthians 7:29-31

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

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

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

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

Mark 1:14-20

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, January 18th


1 Samuel 3:1-20
Psalm 139:1-6, 13-18
1 Corinthians 6:12-20
John 1:43-51

PRAYER OF THE DAY: Thanks be to you, Lord Christ, most merciful redeemer, for the countless blessings and befits you give. May we know you more clearly, love you more dearly, and follow you more nearly, day by day praising you, with the Father and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

One evening long ago I was reading Bible stories to my children. I cannot remember anymore which story I was reading, but I recall very well what happened when I finished. Middle daughter Emily piped up and asked me, “How come God doesn’t talk to us anymore?” Naturally, my first instinct was to respond that God does indeed speak to us through the preaching of the word and through the sacraments. That, after all, is the proper Lutheran answer. But somehow, I knew that by giving such a response, doctrinally correct as it is, I would have been dodging the real issue. Emily was missing the immediacy of God’s presence in her little life. The visions, miracles and revelations in the stories she had been told were not part of her day to day experience. Yet her very recognition of this absence suggested the working of God’s Spirit. This was perhaps the first inclination I had that Emily might be experiencing God’s call to ministry.

As often as I have heard the well-worn complaint that people are drifting away from religion, I still don’t believe it. Oddly enough, one complaint registered repeatedly in interviews of people who have left the church is the lack of connection they felt with God when they were still trying to participate in the church. It isn’t that we are too religious. Our problem is that we are not religious enough. People are leaving us because they are not encountering the call of Jesus to a life of discipleship. Ironically enough, the persons most likely to leave the church are those who, like Emily, sense a lack of God’s presence in their lives and find nothing in the church to address that emptiness.

In Sunday’s lesson from the Hebrew Scriptures, the young boy Samuel hears the voice of the Lord in a time when most folks have become convinced that God no longer speaks. Yet he is not able to hear that word on his own. It is Eli who recognizes that God is calling Samuel. He is the one who instructs Samuel to listen, to respond and to be open to the voice of the Lord. As we will discover in reading the lesson, old Eli had his shortcomings. But he was able to recognize in Samuel a young man called to ministry and to mentor, encourage and instruct him. If only we had more discerning people like Eli, we might find that fewer promising people leave us in disappointment.

Thankfully, there were such people in the church for my daughter. I am proud to say that Emily is a semester away from completing her theological training and has been approved for parish ministry in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. She is living proof that God is still speaking to us, calling us and challenging us to listen. So let us all pray with confidence and joyous expectation, “Speak, Lord. Your servant is listening.”

1 Samuel 3:1-20

In their present form, the books of First and Second Samuel are part of a historical narrative composed by an editor/author scholars refer to as the “Deuteronomist.” This story begins at Deuteronomy and extends through the end of II Kings. The Deuteronomist was clearly influenced by the prophets’ criticisms of the monarchy and its failure to lead Israel in faithfulness to Torah. This critical assessment of the monarchy finds expression in numerous ways throughout the greater narrative.

To a lesser degree, the narrative denigrates the priesthood of Eli and the shrine at Shiloh. This resting place of the Ark of the Covenant was evidently destroyed by the Philistines. Our lesson for Sunday may be, in part, designed to explain this catastrophe. In the prior chapter we learn that Eli’s sons “were scoundrels” who “had no regard for the Lord.” I Samuel 2:12-17. That is the reason given for the judgment God is about to bring on Shiloh and the house of Eli. Vss. 13-14. Yet I believe the principal concern here is to introduce Samuel as the prophet, priest and judge who will be the transitional figure for Israel’s move from a tribal confederacy loosely joined together around the shrine at Shiloh to a united monarchy with a new priesthood based at the temple in Jerusalem.

Samuel, you may recall, was the son born to formerly childless Hannah in response to her prayer. I Samuel 1:9-23. Hannah had vowed to dedicate any son she might be granted to the Lord’s service at Shiloh. True to her word, she brought young Samuel to Eli the high priest of Shiloh when he was weaned and Samuel began assisting Eli in his priestly duties. I Samuel 1:24-28. “The word of the Lord was rare in those days.” Vs. 1. So rare and uncommon were revelations of God that it took Eli three promptings through Samuel to figure out that God was attempting to address the young man. Once Eli realizes what is happening with Samuel, he instructs him how to respond. The message young Samuel receives is bad news for Eli and his sons. Eli must know this, but he still insists firmly that Samuel disclose everything he has heard from God. Vs. 17. Eli responds, “It is the Lord; let him do what seems good to him.” Vs. 18. (Really, what else could he have said?) Verses 19-21 summarize the outcome of this interchange. God still appears at Shiloh and speaks to Israel. But his word comes not through the established priesthood of Eli, but through the prophecy of the young Samuel.

Eli’s parenting skills might well have been lacking. Perhaps that is why his sons turned out to be “scoundrels.” Still, I believe Eli deserves credit for his openness to God’s word, even when that word foretold his own demise. It takes a courageous person to accept the end of his family line, the end of his ministerial heritage and the end of his religious tradition. Few pastors, congregational leaders or denominational officials are willing even to entertain the possibility that God might have no further use for mainline Protestantism and that its end has been decreed. We have trouble reckoning with the possibility that the old wineskins of our institutions might not be capable of containing the new wine of God’s kingdom. We tend to become so fixated on preventing the disintegration of the old skins that we miss out on the sweetness of the new wine. Eli, I believe, recognizes that the word declaring his own doom is a word of life for Israel. It is that word, not the house of Eli, not Trinity congregation or the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America that lasts forever.

Psalm 139:1-6, 13-18

This psalm defies categorization. In some respects, it resembles a lament. This label does not quite fit, though, because the psalmist does not seek salvation from his/her own enemies as much as the destruction of God’s enemies. Though the psalmist struggles with God’s imminence and transcendence, reducing his/her reflections to such mere abstractions does a disservice to the psalm. This is not an individual sharing his/her speculation about God’s nature with someone else. This is a prayer in which the psalmist addresses his/her God. The psalm arises from and is imbedded in a dynamic relationship between God and the psalmist. His/her questions and assertions arise out of his/her experience of covenant life with the God of Israel.

God has “searched” and “known” the psalmist. It is comforting that God is so intimately familiar with us-or is it? There are times I would prefer not to be aware of God’s presence or to think too deeply about it. Does God have to be present when I defecate, pick my nose and do other things that everyone does, but no one admits too? Can’t I take a vacation from God’s presence when I need to vent my most vindictive feelings, feelings that I know are unworthy of me, feelings that I am ashamed of? Is it possible to experience God’s presence not as sweet comfort, but as an oppressive weight? The psalmist seems somewhat ambivalent about God’s constant nearness. S/he seems to be asking, “Is there no escape from this all-encompassing reality that seems to have me hemmed in from all sides?”

Verses 13-18 praise God for God’s intimate involvement with the psalmist’s life from womb to tomb. “In your book were written all the days that were formed for me, when none of them yet existed.” Vs. 16. Taken literally and in isolation from its larger context, this verse appears to assert a strict determinism. Each day and everything in it is predetermined right down to the red tie I decided (or think that I decided) to wear today. But the nature of the psalmist’s relationship to his/her God suggests anything but a detached deity running a soulless machine. As the psalmist looks back on his/her life, s/he marvels at God’s activity in his/her life and all that God has done to bring him/her to this place and time. God has indeed given the final shape to each of the psalmist’s days, not as an author working with a fixed plot, but as a relational partner coaxing, persuading and nudging the psalmist toward deeper covenant living.

Some years ago a colleague of mine told me of a jarring experience she had conducting a funeral for a stillborn child. Using this psalm as her text, she assured the grieving parents of God’s tender care for their little one throughout the pregnancy and of God’s deep sorrow in his death. She spoke at length about the infinite value of this little life, short though it was. Following the service she was approached by an angry woman who through clenched teeth asked, “Do you have any idea how cruel, hurtful and unfeeling your words sound to a woman who has had an abortion?” She went on to accuse my friend of using the funeral to further the pro-life agenda and then stalked away before any response could be made.

I relate that story because it illustrates how thoroughly many of our scriptures have become captive to ideological disputes in our culture. I know that the last thing my friend would ever have wanted to do is address a political hot potato in the midst of a pastoral crisis like this one. Her only “agenda” was to speak words of comfort to a couple experiencing a traumatic loss and I have no doubt that they were in fact comforted. I am also convinced that abortion was not even at the furthest horizon of the psalmist’s thought process. It was obviously at the forefront of this individual’s thought process, however. So much so that it colored everything she heard my friend saying.

I am not sure how we deal with scriptural texts that have become almost “too hot to handle.” I believe that my friend was right to point out how this text affirms the value of the life that was lost to these grieving parents, God’s sharing in their sorrow and the significance of that life despite its never having seen the light of day. I believe it is altogether improper to use this psalm as ammunition in support of legislative measures regulating or criminalizing abortion. I reject having to choose between an ideology that reduces an unborn child to disposable tissue and one that simply equates termination of pregnancy with homicide. I recognize certain Bible passages have collected a lot of dirt from having been dragged through the culture wars. They must be spoken with care, sensitivity and compassion-but spoken nonetheless. I maintain that whether or not one has (or should have) a legal right to do a thing has no bearing on whether a disciple of Jesus should exercise that right. I reject the notion that issues, such as abortion, can only be discussed in terms of “rights,” especially within the Body of Christ. And that brings us to the next lesson.

1 Corinthians 6:12-20

As we will be hearing from Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians for the next four weeks, you might want to refresh your recollection concerning the background of that letter. To that end, I refer you to the Summary Article by Mary Hinkle Shore, Associate Professor of New Testament at Luther Seminary, St. Paul, M.N. on enterthebible.org.

As I have probably said too many times already, it is impossible to comprehend Paul without appreciating his understanding of the church as the Body of Christ. Again, this is not a metaphor. Paul truly believes that the church is the physical presence of the resurrected Christ animated by the Spirit of Christ. It is the objective of the Holy Spirit to form “the mind of Christ” in this body of believers. I Corinthians 2:16. That happens as believers learn to appreciate each other as indispensable members of Christ. Just as the human body instinctively protects an injured part, so the church surrounds with care and compassion the member that is hurting. Just as the action of one part of the human body affects the whole, so each member of the Body of Christ must measure his or her conduct by its effect on the Body of Christ. See I Corinthians 12:12-26.

Today’s reading tackles sexual immorality or, more specifically, the believer’s engagement of prostitutes. Before considering this particular issue, however, we need to remind ourselves that “Paul’s ethical counsels and appeals stand in letters which were addressed to particular congregations and were formulated in response to particular situations.” Furnish, Victor Paul, “A Paradigm for Ethics in First Corinthians,” Interpretation, Vol. 44, No. 2 (April 1990), p. 145. Therefore, “[o]ne must not presume that his judgments about particular issues, say, in Corinth, would be the same were he writing to Christians elsewhere. Indeed, insofar as Paul’s counsels were specifically applicable in the situations to which they were originally addressed, they cannot be specifically applicable in any other situation. Nor is it possible to extract or reconstruct from his specific counsels a set of general “ethical principles…” Ibid. 145-146 (emphasis in original). Instead, “one finds there not a “Pauline ethic,” but Paul the pastor/counselor, reflecting on how the truth of the gospel forms and reforms the lives of those who are in Christ, and urging his congregations to be conformed to that truth within the particulars of their own situations.” Ibid. 146 (emphasis in original).

Paul’s ethics therefore derive not from scriptural rules or prescriptions. That which is good builds up the Body of Christ-whether it comports with some other objective moral prescription or not. That which injures the Body of Christ or compromises its witness to Jesus is evil-even if there is scriptural precedent for it. For Paul, ethics are not about breaking or keeping rules. It comes down to each member of the church being so totally possessed by the mind of Christ that s/he instinctively does what is appropriate to protect and build up Christ’s Body.

Earlier on in chapter 6, Paul was taking the Corinthian believers to task for their litigiousness. When fellow members of the Body of Christ sue each other in pagan courts, their witness to Christ is horribly compromised. “Can it be,” asks Paul incredulously, “that there is no man among you wise enough to decide between members of the church?” I Corinthians 6:5. Indeed, the very fact that individual members have disputes that they are incapable of resolving between them is a defeat for the Body of Christ in which all members are to work in harmony for the sake of the whole Body. I Corinthians 6:7-8.

So now Paul takes the bull by the horns. “All things are lawful for me,” say Paul’s opponents. Is this really what they were saying or is Paul caricaturing their position by means of a reductio ad absurdum? Whatever the case may be, it appears that the issue of prostitution was a genuine one for believers. Bear in mind that prostitution was entirely legal in Corinth and often connected with pagan civic and religious ritual. While the practice was hardly universally condoned and often condemned by philosophers and moralists of many persuasions, prostitution was nevertheless common and altogether legal. That may well be, Paul replies. The law affords one many “rights.” You may have a right to sue. You may have the right to do all manner of things, including consortium with prostitutes. But legality is beside the point. Within the Body of Christ, it is never a matter of what is legal. It is always a matter of what is “helpful,” of what contributes to the health of the whole Body.

Though Paul could have drawn from a host of biblical passages condemning prostitution and fornication, he makes no such citation. Instead, Paul quotes the passage from Genesis following the creation of Eve from Adam’s rib stating that “the two became one flesh.” Genesis 2:24. Vs. 16. That being the case, how can one who is a member of Christ’s Body become one flesh with a prostitute? Clearly, given that most prostitutes were connected in some way with pagan ritual, such an act amounts to idolatry. Just as significantly, however, the life-giving and covenant building potential inherent in sexual intercourse is wasted on dead end casual encounters. Instead of building up “the Temple of the Holy Spirit,” the fornicator is desecrating that Temple by joining it to the temple of pagan gods. Vs. 19. “You are not your own,” says Paul. There can be no assertion of “My body, my choice.” “You were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body.” Vss. 19-20.

Obviously, Paul is addressing an issue that is non-existent for most of us. (I can’t recall the last time one of my parishioners reported being solicited by a temple prostitute). So, too, there are plenty of issues important to us that Paul’s prescription does not address directly: Cohabitation between adults not formally married; uncoerced sex between persons in a dating relationship and more. That is not to say, however, that Paul contributes nothing to our consideration of these issues. Clearly, Paul’s primary concern is how sexual conduct (any conduct for that matter) affects the church’s life and mission. Paul is also concerned about how such conduct affects other individual believers who are members of Christ’s Body. Finally, Paul would insist that we consider whether the conduct builds up the church. Sexual relationships, therefore, must be characterized by selfless love, covenant faithfulness and life-giving expression that builds up the Body of Christ. Based on these reflections, the author of the Letter to the Ephesians can state that the covenant between wife and husband ought to reflect the same covenant relationship God desires between Christ and the church. (BTW, it matters not one wit whether you characterize the husband as Christ and the wife as church or do it the other way around. There is no hierarchy in the kingdom of heaven. “Love” and “respect” are simply two sides of the same coin.)

John 1:43-51

Having already called Peter and Andrew to be his disciples the day before, Jesus decides to leave the Judean banks of the Jordan River and travel to Galilee. Jesus “found” Philip and called him to be his disciple. Philip, in turn, “found” Nathaniel and declared to him, “We have ‘found’ him of whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph.” Vs.45. Here again John’s use of language is very deliberate. The Greek word translated “found” in our English Bibles is “eureeka,” from which we get our expression: “Eureka!” meaning “I’ve got it!” This exclamation is attributed to the ancient Greek philosopher/scientist Archimedes. According to anecdotal legend, Archimedes observed one day how the water level rose as he stepped into the bath tub. This, in turn, led to his realization that the volume of water displaced must be identical to the part of his body submerged. Upon making the connection, he gave us that immortal exclamation. So the “finding” that is going on in this story amounts to more than just a random discovery. It is disclosure of a critical piece of the puzzle that is God’s redemptive intent for the world.

Philip, though identified as one of the Twelve disciples in the synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke), plays no active role anywhere else therein. By contrast, Philip is a major player in John’s gospel, being among the first disciples Jesus called. He is instrumental in bringing Nathaniel to Jesus. Vs.45. He is personally mentioned in the feeding of the five thousand (John 6:5-7), acts as an intermediary between Jesus and some Greeks wishing to see him (John 12:20-23) and takes an active part in one of Jesus’ major discourses (John 14:8-9). Nathaniel is not included among the twelve disciples in the synoptics. Though some strands of tradition identify him with Bartholomew, there is no solid textual or historical basis for so doing.

The fact that Philip describes Jesus to Nathaniel as the one about whom both Moses and the prophets wrote indicates that he has already concluded that Jesus is Israel’s messiah. The “law and the prophets” is frequently used shorthand for the whole of the Hebrew Scriptures in their entirety. See, e.g., Matthew 5:17; Luke 16:16; Acts 13:15; and Romans 3:21. It is quite understandable that Nathaniel would be skeptical about Philip’s claim. Nazareth of Galilee, unlike Bethlehem or the City of Jerusalem, is not the sort of place from which you would expect a great leader to arise, much less Israel’s messiah. Furthermore, according to John’s gospel, Jesus’ father, Joseph, is merely a local with no evident royal lineage. Philip bears a substantial burden of proof! Rather than attempting to argue Nathaniel out of his very reasonable objections, however, he simply invites him to “come and see.” Vs. 46.

“Behold, an Israelite,” Jesus declares. Vs. 47. This might well be translated, “Now here’s the real thing! A true Israelite.” While it is not exactly clear what Jesus meant by remarking that Nathaniel was without “guile,” the point is Nathaniel’s response. “How the hell do you know anything about me?” (very roughly translated). “I could be Jack-the-Ripper for all you know.” (Not actually said and a tad anachronistic but, hey, it captures the spirit of the conversation). Vs. 48. Jesus’ response is extremely important. He replies to Nathaniel, “When you were under the fig tree, I saw you.” Vs. 49. Jesus is not simply showing off his clairvoyance. He is making a messianic proclamation echoing the words of the prophet Micah: “but they shall sit every man under his vine and under his fig tree, and none shall make them afraid; for the mouth of the LORD of hosts has spoken.” Micah 4:4. In effect, Jesus is saying, “I know, Nathaniel, that you are of the New Israel, an Israelite without ‘guile’ (unlike Jacob!), because the messianic age has come.” This “word of the Lord of Hosts” is enough to convince Nathaniel. He confesses Jesus as both the King of Israel and the Son of God, both common messianic titles. Barrett, C.K., The Gospel According to John, 2nd Ed. (c. 1978 by Westminster Press) p. 186.

But there is more to Jesus than Nathaniel has guessed. “You will see heaven opened, and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.” Vs. 51. The reference here is to the story of “Jacob’s Ladder” narrated at Genesis 28:10-17. After waking from a dream in which angels ascended and descended from a heavenly ladder upon the rock where he lay, Jacob declared: “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.” Genesis 28:17. Jesus, then, is “the house of God” that will replace the temple with its holy of holies. John 2:19-21. Jesus is the “gate” through which the sheep will go in and out and find pasture. John 10:9. Keep your eye peeled and focused on Jesus. You haven’t seen anything yet!

Sunday, January 4th


Jeremiah 31:7-14
Psalm 147:12-20
Ephesians 1:3-14
John 1:1-18

PRAYER OF THE DAY: Almighty God, you have filled all the earth with the light of your incarnate Word. By your grace empower us to reflect your light in all that we do, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

Although I will be preaching from the texts for the Second Sunday of Christmas, we will be observing the Epiphany of our Lord at Trinity on Sunday, January 4th. I believe the gospel lesson is particularly appropriate for the day. The word “epiphany” comes from the Greek verb,” epiphanein,” to “reveal” or “make manifest.” That is precisely what John’s gospel does with Jesus. John unwraps Jesus slowly, deliberately and with great tenderness as one might unwrap a precious gift. He describes Jesus as “the light of men,” telling us that the “light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.”

The light ought to bring us joy. I don’t know about you, but I derive a good bit of comfort knowing that the shortest day of the year is behind us and that, from here on out, the days will be getting longer and the nights shorter. While I have never been diagnosed with seasonal affective disorder, I know that I thrive on light. For me, the worst part of losing our power after Hurricane Sandy was the darkness. Even during the day it seemed we were always moving about in semi-darkness. Nothing was more maddening than reactively flipping on the light switch to no avail. What a delight it was when the power came back flooding the house with light!

But John tells us that the world is less than thrilled with the light of Jesus. “He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world knew him not. He came to his own home, and his own people received him not.” Why would anyone shun the light? The answer comes to us later in the gospel when John tells us: “And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil.” The problem with light is that it reveals everything-even the stuff we prefer not to see. I would rather not know what my country does to people in musty dungeons far “off the grid” in the name of fighting terrorism. I would prefer not to know who made the items I buy, or under what sort of working conditions they were made or how the workers making them were compensated. I would rather not believe that racism pervades the culture in which I live, making me blind to the injustice and pain experienced by people of color in my land. But the truth cannot be had piecemeal. It’s an all or nothing proposition. The light illuminates all things indiscriminately, good, bad and ugly.

Still, for all the pain, embarrassment and discomfort the light can bring, it is nevertheless “life.” So says John the Evangelist. To those who receive Jesus, to all who are willing to be instructed by him, exposed by him and transformed by him, “he gives power to become the children of God.” Knowing Jesus is knowing the heart of God whose desire is not our destruction, but our salvation. That gives us the courage we need to see ourselves and our world, not as we fancy them to be, but as they truly are. Knowing Jesus also reveals to us all that our world can and will be. It may take our eyes some time to adjust to the light, accustomed as they are to the darkness. Indeed, our initial reaction to the light might very well be to avert our gaze, cover our eyes and remain in the darkness. But, in the words of the hymn: “Morning dispels, gently compels, and we’re drawn to the light of God.” “Drawn to the Light,” John C. Ylvisaker, Evangelical Lutheran Worship, # 593. May it be so!

Jeremiah 31:7-14

Our lesson is taken from Jeremiah’s “Book of Consolation,” consisting of Jeremiah 30:1-31:40. These oracles are thought to have been collected by Jeremiah’s scribe, Baruch, and reflect the period between 622 B.C.E. and 609 B.C.E. During this period the Southern Kingdom of Judah was under the reign of King Josiah who, during the collapse of the Assyrian Empire, manage to restore Judah to independence and to a measure of national prominence. Under his leadership, Judah was able to annex much of the land once occupied by the Northern Kingdom of Israel that had been destroyed and occupied by Assyria in 622 B.C.E. Jeremiah was probably a young man or perhaps just a boy when the Northern Kingdom fell. He laments that calamity with these memorable lines: “A voice is heard in Ramah, lamentation and bitter weeping. Rachel is weeping for her children; she refuses to be comforted for her children, because they are no more.” Jeremiah 31:15. Rachel, of course, was the second wife of Jacob and the mother of Joseph. The northern tribes of Ephraim and Manasseh trace their lineage through Rachel and Joseph. Matthew’s gospel cites to this verse to express the grief of Bethlehem over the slaughter of its male children by Herod the Great. Matthew 2:18.

This section of Jeremiah, unlike so much of his work, reflects the joy and comfort available to the “remnant” from the Northern Kingdom now that they have been liberated from the yolk of Assyria. The Assyrians carried many of the Israelites of the Northern Kingdom into Exile throughout their empire. II Kings 17:1-6. Jeremiah voices an expectation that the new state of affairs brought about through Josiah’s annexation of what was once Israel will allow these exiles to return home. Vss. 10-11.

Jeremiah is clear that the northern tribes have no one but themselves to blame for their fate. The Assyrian conquest came upon Israel “because your guilt is great, because your sins are flagrant.” For this reason, God dealt her “the blow of an enemy.” Vs. 14. Yet even God’s punishment is an act of mercy designed to bring about repentance and faith. Thus, Israel ought not to complain that her “hurt is incurable.” Vs. 12. “For I will restore health to you,” says the Lord, “and your wounds I will heal.” Vs. 17. Assyria ought not to think that, because its military oppression has served as God’s instrument of discipline, it will suffer no consequences for its ruthlessness. This brutal empire will soon get a taste of its own medicine. God assures the oppressed northerners that “all who devour you shall be devoured, and all your foes, every one of them, shall go into captivity; those who despoil you shall become a spoil, and all who prey on you I will make a prey.” Vs. 16. That is precisely what occurred in 626 B.C.E. when the Babylonian general, Nabaplausur, took Assyria’s capital city, Nineveh.

The resulting relief given to Judah and other smaller countries of the Middle East was short lived. Recognizing the destabilizing threat posed by the rise of Babylon, Egypt’s Pharaoh Neco led his army north in order to prop up what remained of the Assyrian forces. According to the account in II Kings, Neco had no interest in engaging Judah but, for reasons best known to himself, King Josiah felt it necessary to confront the Egyptian army. The battle ended badly for Judah with the death of King Josiah and loss of independence to Egyptian vassalage. II Kings 23:29-30. According to II Chronicles 35:25, Jeremiah uttered a lament for this fallen king. No such oracle can be found, however, in the Book of the Prophet Jeremiah itself. Though it is quite possible that Jeremiah supported the religious reforms introduced by Josiah according to II Kings 23, it is likely that he felt they did not go far enough. In his preaching Jeremiah called for a change of heart commensurate with ritual practice. Torah was to be inscribed upon the hearts of the people under a new covenant. Jeremiah 31:31-34.

Jeremiah’s hope for the enslaved and exiled northern tribes did not come to fruition in his life time. Indeed, he lived to see also the conquest and exile of his own nation of Judah. Yet the people of Israel continued to find hope and direction from Jeremiah’s words and do so to this very day. Faithful readers of the scriptures know that prophecies are often fulfilled in ways greater and more wonderful than the biblical authors themselves could have imagined. The new heaven and the new earth foreshadowed in Jesus’ resurrection is quite beyond our own grasp. To the extent the scriptural witnesses can speak of the new creation at all, they must resort to parables, poems and apocalyptic imagery. Prophesy is designed, not to foretell the future, but to enlarge our imaginations so that we can recognize in the future the redemptive intent of our God.

Psalm 147:12-20

As I find it altogether impossible to appreciate the verses making up Sunday’s lesson without taking Psalm 147 in its entirety, I will do so. I encourage you to read the whole psalm as well. Like the group of praise psalms to which it belongs consisting of Psalms 146-150, this psalm begins with the words, “Praise the LORD!” Or “Hallelujah” as pronounced in the Hebrew. Vs. 1

“How good it is” “Kee Tov.” An exclamation that is likewise used throughout the Psalms to express what is “good,” “right,” or “fitting.” E.g., “O give thanks unto the LORD, for He is goodPsalm 136:1; “O give thanks unto the LORD; for He is good; for His mercy endureth forever” Psalm 106:1.

“The LORD builds up Jerusalem; he gathers the outcasts of Israel.” Vs. 2. This verse pinpoints the composition of the psalm to Israel’s post-exilic period, probably between 510 B.C.E. and 400 B.C.E. After the destruction of Jerusalem and its Temple in 587 B.C.E., the leading citizens of the Southern Kingdom of Judah were carried away into Babylon where they lived as forced immigrants for nearly 70 years. Israel’s longing and hope for return from exile never died, however. In 539 B.C.E. Cyrus the Great conquered Babylon. Cyrus, who lived from 580 B.C.E.-529 B.C.E., was the first Achaemenian Emperor of Persia. He issued a decree providing, among other things, that Babylon’s captive peoples were free to return to their homelands to restore their shrines and worship traditions. Inscribed on a clay cylinder, it has come to be known as the first declaration of Human Rights. This artifact is in the custody of the British Museum. A replica is also on display at the United Nations in New York. Known as “The Kurash Prism,” this decree reads as follows:

“I am Kurash [ “Cyrus” ], King of the World, Great King, Legitimate King, King of Babilani, King of Kiengir and Akkade, King of the four rims of the earth, Son of Kanbujiya, Great King, King of Hakhamanish, Grandson of Kurash, Great king, King of Hakhamanish, descendant of Chishpish, Great king, King of Hakhamanish, of a family which always exercised kingship; whose rule Bel and Nebo love, whom they want as king to please their hearts. When I entered Babilani as a friend and when I established the seat of the government in the palace of the ruler under jubilation and rejoicing, Marduk, the great lord, induced the magnanimous inhabitants of Babilani to love me, and I was daily endeavoring to worship him…. As to the region from as far as Assura and Susa, Akkade, Eshnunna, the towns Zamban, Me-turnu, Der as well as the region of the Gutians, I returned to these sacred cities on the other side of the Tigris the sanctuaries of which have been ruins for a long time, the images which used to live therein and established for them permanent sanctuaries. I also gathered all their former inhabitants and returned them to their habitations. Furthermore, I resettled upon the command of Marduk, the great lord, all the gods of Kiengir and Akkade whom Nabonidus had brought into Babilani to the anger of the lord of the gods, unharmed, in their former temples, the places which make them happy.” Internet Ancient History Sourcebook.

“He heals the broken-hearted, and binds up their wounds.” Vs. 3. This is a particularly moving verse and a source of great comfort to people in all kinds of circumstances. Though this psalm is one of praise glorifying God for all the great things God has done, the psalmist is mindful that songs of praise arise from deliverance out of circumstances of dire need. The psalmist who composed this beautiful hymn of praise celebrating a keen awareness of God’s presence is also mindful that we sometimes experience God’s seeming absence. S/he has also had occasion to pray, “Out of the depths have I called Thee, O LORD.” Psalm 130:1.

“Great is our Lord, and abundant in power; his understanding is beyond measure.” Vs. 5. Compare and contrast this affirmation to that of Cyrus in the Prisim. It is the God of Israel who makes the stars in the sky. This God’s understanding and power are beyond measure-unlike the gods to which Cyrus refers whose power is limited to their geographic domains. We see again the contrast between ancient Mid Eastern religion and that of Israel in verse 6. Cyrus feels that he must return the images of all of the god’s held in Babylon to their rightful temples in order to placate them and earn success. Little does he know that his success was ordained by Israel’s God long before he arrived in Babylon! See Isaiah 45:1-3. Moreover, it is not by placating God, whether by sacrifices or obedience to the law, that the earth produces food for people and animals. God does this of his own volition, regardless of what people do or do not do. Vss. 8-9. “[God’s] delight is not in the strength of a horse, nor his pleasure in the legs of a man; but the Lord takes pleasure in those who fear him, in those who hope in his steadfast love.” Vss. 10-11. By contrast, the Prism reflects a belief that divine favor is manifested in military victory and that power and prosperity are signs of divine favor. But that is not the case. God’s favor is found in his mercy toward those who humbly rely upon his promises and look to him for all their needs.

Our lesson, consisting of verses 12-20, declares that God’s greatest work does not lie in any of his marvelous doings in nature, but in his relationship with Israel which has been blessed by God’s commandments and statutes. This is what distinguishes Israel among the peoples. As Israel learned through bitter experience, neither her land, her temple nor her king were essential to her existence as a people. Israel lost all of these things in the Babylonian conquest. What Israel did not lose and can never lose are God’s covenant promises to her and God’s declaration that Israel will forever be his people. God remains faithful to his promises even when God’s chosen people depart form theirs. So it continues to be. The word and promise spoken to us in our baptisms is irrevocable. The psalm appropriately ends exactly as it began: “Hallelujah”

Ephesians 1:3-14

In the lesson for today from the Letter to the Ephesians, the writer articulates an unmistakable belief in predestination. It is critical, however, to understand this teaching within the total context of the letter. “With all wisdom and insight [God] has made known to us the mystery of his will, according to his good pleasure that he set forth in Christ, as a plan for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth.” Vss. 8-10. Consequently, the church is not the select few that God has graciously decided to snatch from the deck of a sinking ship. God’s concern is not merely with particular passengers, but with the entire ship. Thus, to be predestined for faith in Jesus is not to be elevated to a position of special privilege. It is instead a commission to witness and embody the plan God has for all people. Thus, the church is the first fruits of and a testimony to God’s plan to “gather up all things in heaven and on earth.” Vs. 10.

I believe that this is particularly pertinent to the observation of Epiphany during which we are compelled to recognize how, as non-Jewish believers, we come into the covenant relationship God has with Israel by Jesus’ gracious invitation. We are not here by right. That has recently come to shape the way I express hospitality toward visitors to my congregation whose relationship to Christ, faith and the church are tenuous at best. At our Christmas Eve Eucharist, my daughter Emily preached a first rate sermon using the example of children’s Christmas pageants in order to illustrate our desire for participation in the drama of the Nativity. This worship service, I should say, was an outreach experiment designed to appeal to families with small children in our community. I was pleased to see that at least half the participants were folks I had never seen before.

When it came time for Holy Communion, a couple of these families came forward to receive. I handed the host to a woman followed by two children. “I’m not sure we should be here,” she said. “We are not baptized or anything.” I always wondered what I would do in a circumstance like this. After all, I have always been taught and believed that Baptism is the door by which we are born into the church and Eucharist is the feast of the baptized. But here was an unbaptized person who had just heard and was accepting our invitation to participate in the mystery of the Incarnation. What else could I say but what I said? “Yes, you should be here. This is still Christ’s Body given for you.” To say anything less would have been to place a stumbling block in the way of Christ. I am currently working on re-writing the invitation to the Lord’s Table used in our worship bulletin.

John 1:1-18

“When you collect marine animals there are certain flat worms so delicate that they are almost impossible to catch whole for they will break and tatter under the touch. You must let them ooze and crawl of their own will onto a knife blade and lift them gently into your bottle of sea water. And perhaps that might be the way to write this book-to open the page and let the stories crawl in by themselves.” John Steinbeck from his novel, Cannery Row.

I think that is perhaps the best way to describe how John writes his gospel. Rather than relating the story of Jesus’ birth, John gives us a poem about the miracle of the Incarnation filled with many opposite, contrasting and complementary images that will be developed and brought into sharper focus throughout the following narrative. Light and darkness; being and nothingness; knowledge and ignorance; belief and unbelief; birth from flesh and birth from God. All of these images and terms will find further expression and deeper meaning as the story of Jesus unfolds. For now, though, they swim about together in the rich primordial soil of John’s imaginative lyrics. We must wait for them to ooze out and show themselves for what they truly are.

John begins with the declaration that the Word was both with God in the beginning and was God. This is entirely consistent with the Hebrew Scriptures which speak of God’s Word as “coming” and “accomplishing.” See, e.g., Jeremiah 1:2; Isaiah 55:11. God is not merely as good as God’s Word. God is God’s Word. Yet even though the same as God, the Word is somehow distinguishable from God. So far, I think, our Jewish and Muslim sisters and brothers might agree with John.

But then John goes on to tell us something remarkable. “The Word became flesh.” The Word became a human person such that the invisible God is now visible. Here, I believe, is where the church’s confession parts company with our Abrahamic sisters and brothers. If we are going to say that God has a Son, it seems to follow inevitably that there must be at least two gods. Yet John (along with the rest of the New Testament writers) maintains that God is one. The church has struggled with this enormously counterintuitive confession from the onset, rejecting numerous more plausible alternative understandings. At the heart of the Incarnation stands this one scandalous truth: God is visible and God is human. The Incarnation was not a temporary state into which God entered for a single lifetime. It was not merely a clever disguise. In Jesus, God became irrevocably human and remains so. That is why John can say in his First Letter, “If anyone says, ‘I love God,’ and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen, cannot love God whom he has not seen.” I John 4:20.

The inescapable conclusion is that to rend the flesh of another human being is to rend the flesh of God. To ridicule, excoriate or insult another human being is to blaspheme God. God cannot be harmed or insulted by the removal of a crèche or a cross from public lands, disrespect for the Bible or desecration of a sanctuary. Only by harming the persons created to bear God’s image and for whom the Son of God died can God’s self be injured. When that becomes clear, it is equally clear by how far much of what passes for Christianity these days misses the mark. Something is seriously out of whack when we grieve more over the removal of humanly designed plastic figures of Jesus from the park than we do for the homeless people created by God in God’s image who are still sleeping there.

One of the most significant words in this section is that word “dwelt” or “lived” as the New Revised Standard Version has it. Vs. 14. Both translations fall short of the actual Greek word “skaiano” which means literally to “tent with” or “tabernacle with.” The word conjures up images of the tent of presence in which God dwelt among the people of Israel on their journey to the Promised Land. This powerful image of Jesus as God’s presence gets lost in the English translation!

There is far more that could be said about this section of John. Nearly every word in John’s gospel is freighted with meaning that accumulates like the mass of a snowball rolling downhill. For those of us who will be observing the Feast of Epiphany on Sunday, the contrast between light and darkness is particularly meaningful.