Tag Archives: faith and science

Sunday, May 24th


Ezekiel 37:1-14
Psalm 104:24-34, 35b
Romans 8:22-27
John 15:26-27; 16:4b-15

PRAYER OF THE DAY: Mighty God, you breathe life into our bones, and your Spirit brings truth to the world. Send us this Spirit, transform us by your truth, and give us language to proclaim your gospel, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

“When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth.” John 16:13.

Not long ago I ran into a friend from a congregation to which I once belonged and served. After the usual exchange of pleasantries, she unloaded upon me her frustrations with the “new” direction taken by our church (Evangelical Lutheran Church in America). Of particular concern was our 2009 churchwide decision to permit the blessing of same sex relationships and to accept for ordination persons living faithfully in such relationships. “The Bible has taught us that marriage is a life-long commitment between one man and one woman from the beginning of time,” she remarked. “Why change it now?”

How to answer? There was so much wrong with the question itself that I hardly knew where to begin answering. My friend’s assertion about the Bible’s teaching on marriage is dead wrong. In addition to monogamy, the Bible recognizes polygamy, concubinage and sexual slavery as legitimate arrangements. When it comes to the sheer number of Bible passages available on the subject of marriage, there are far more verses one could use to undermine the monogamous relationships we have now come to call “traditional” than there are to be used against same sex marriages. The church adopted the rule of monogamy largely because it was the dominant trend both in 1st Century Judaism and throughout Mediterranean culture generally. Of course, there were theological reasons as well. Paul’s assertion that there is in Christ neither male nor female undermined the cultural assumption of patriarchy and the treatment of women as property. The comparison of marriage to Christ’s relationship with the church in the letter to the Ephesians leaves no more room for polygamy than does the First Commandment for polytheism. But at the very least, we need to acknowledge that societal trends played a large part in driving the church’s recognition of monogamy as normative for marriage. It was not that way from the beginning of time or throughout the scriptures.

If the church had all the truth, it would not need the Holy Spirit to guide it. I don’t believe the church has ever claimed that it possessed all the truth even in its worst moments of triumphalistic arrogance. I do believe, however, that we frequently claim possession of more truth than we actually have. The church has also been flat out wrong about some things-and we usually don’t take kindly to folks who point that out to us. It took us centuries to get over Nicolaus Copernicus and Galileo Galilei informing us that the earth revolves around the sun rather than the other way around. The rich irony here is that, even as the Vatican was bringing Galileo up on charges of heresy, its ships were using navigational maps based on his heretical theory because maps based on the orthodox, Bible based Ptolemaic understanding of the universe reliably ran them into the rocks. At some point, denying the obvious in order to preserve “what we have always believed and taught” is just silly.

Even as the church is not always right; so too, societal trends are not always wrong. Clearly, Copernicus and Galileo were on the right track. The church would have done well to take their work seriously and think more deeply about what the Bible actually has to say about creation and our abilities to understand it. Had we done that, it is entirely possible that we would have spared ourselves the embarrassment of Galileo’s heresy trial, the Scopes Monkey trial centuries later and the present day humiliating spectacle of multi-million dollar museums featuring T-rex’s cavorting with Adam and Eve.

So, too, it has long been the scientific consensus (since at least the early 1970s) that homosexual orientation is a naturally occurring phenomenon rather than a psychiatric disorder. It has also become painfully and tragically evident that pseudo-scientific methods employed to “cure” people of their sexual orientations are not only ineffectual, but harmful. I am not suggesting that one cannot assert good faith arguments against the blessing/marriage of same sex couples or that theological concerns about so doing should be dismissed out of hand. But let me say emphatically that no argument should be entertained based on junk science, literalistic readings of cherry picked scripture passages or irrational fear and hatred toward gay and lesbian people.

Thankfully, the church’s long history demonstrates that it is capable of adaptation. Marriage has evolved within the church from an arrangement between men by which women were transferred as property to a relationship of mutuality mirroring that of Christ to the church. That, in my view, is a much bigger leap than merely opening up our current understanding of mutual covenant love and faithfulness to same sex couples. We cannot pretend that the church is guided strictly by doctrines, morals and practices that remain unaltered in their pristine form dating from biblical times. That is not what the Bible tells us.

The church has changed throughout the ages and will no doubt change in ways we cannot predict throughout the coming century. But that should not trouble us. Jesus promises to be present in our midst through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. That Spirit can be trusted to correct our missteps and guide us into all truth. I only pray that my friend and all others who share her concerns find comfort and peace in that promise.

Ezekiel 37:1-14

For my general comments on the Book of the Prophet Ezekiel, see my post of September 7, 2014. For my reflections on this text in particular, see my post of April 6, 2014.

This familiar story of the prophet and the valley of dead bones takes on a new meaning when played in the major key of Pentecost rather than the minor key of Lent. The focus now is less on the hopeless circumstances of the people and more on the life giving power of the “the breath,” or “ruach” as the Hebrew has it. As I have mentioned before, ruach may be translated either as “spirit” or as “breath.” As our psalm points out, it is the breath of God that gives life to inanimate clay. Psalm 104: 29-30; Genesis 2:7. It is this same breath that is summoned by the words of the prophet to inspire hope among an exiled people on the verge of extinction. Vss. 11-14. The interplay between God’s word that goes forth from God finding expression in the words of the prophet and God’s Spirit/Breath that gives life is found throughout the Hebrew Scriptures, particularly in the writings of the prophets. Torah is not dead letter. It is the place where God seizes the heart and imagination even as the believer wrestles with Torah in prayer and reflection. Psalm 119 in particular testifies to this lively and dynamic relationship between word and spirit, hearing and prayer, meditation and daily life.

So, too, Spirit is not an ethereal inwardness. The Spirit of God is always tied in some way to God’s word. The Hebrew God is the one who speaks. God speaks creation into being, speaks through the gift of Torah and speaks through the mouths of the prophets. God’s Spirit is given through speech. The God of the Bible is not the deity of philosophers whose nature and identity is discovered through reflection upon his necessary attributes. The God of the Bible reveals God’s self through acts of salvation on behalf of a particular people. God’s Spirit is given through the narratives of the Patriarchs and Matriarchs, through the story of the Exodus, Wilderness Wanderings, Settling of Canaan, the Davidic Monarchy, Exile and Return from Exile. To receive the Spirit is to locate yourself in these grand narratives.

It is easy enough to find ourselves in this narrative. We are the dead bones, a people in decline. We inhabit a landscape of museums, office buildings and theaters that once were thriving places of worship. For those sanctuaries that still function as such, there is often a huge disconnect between the small, aging and fragile band of worshipers and the triumphal architecture housing them. We are the dead bones, but can we recognize ourselves as the bones upon which the breath of God’ blows? Are we able to recognize those places where God’s Spirit is creating life in our midst? Where is the Spirit moving in the church today?

Psalm 104:24-34, 35b

For my extensive comments on this psalm, I invite you to revisit last year’s Pentecost post of June 8, 2014. I am struck this time around by the dependence of our earth upon the animating word and Spirit of God. The cosmology of Genesis places the habitable world under a great dome creating a bubble within the chaotic waters that were before time. Should the windows of heaven crack allowing the waters above the earth to cascade down and the waters beneath the earth erupt over the land, the creation would soon degenerate into chaos. Indeed, this is precisely what almost occurred during the great flood in Noah’s time. Genesis 7:11. Obviously, our 21st Century cosmology is a good deal more sophisticated than the biblical understanding of the universe. Nevertheless, whether one is reading this psalm or Carl Sagan’s Cosmos, one cannot help but be impressed with how vulnerable our little planet is. When you stop and think about how our earth runs its course around the sun through a gauntlet of asteroids that could inflict (and in the past have inflicted) catastrophic destruction on our planet, it is amazing that we all have the presence of mind to go about our daily business. The psalmist reminds us that we are, after all, a frail and vulnerable island of relative peace within a violent universe every bit as terrifying as the monster infested waters of creation. Yet the psalmist goes on to assure us that the universe is not a billiard table. It is not merely cosmos. It is creation, a creation that was made by a God who loves it, watches tenderly over it and animates it with God’s own Spirit.

The good news here is that even the sea monsters and seemingly destructive forces are God’s creatures in which God takes delight. The world is neither a haunted house animated by warring demons as the ancient near eastern religions often asserted, nor is it a dead and soulless chamber of ricocheting rocks subject only to randomness. The Spirit of God is at work, as I have said, bending each subatomic particle toward the creation of a new heaven and earth. That is an affirmation of faith that cannot finally be verified empirically. It is discovered by a people living in covenant with their gracious and merciful God. Finally, thanks again to the makers of the lectionary for sparing us poor, simple minded sheep from scriptural expressions not strictly in accord with American middleclass protestant, slightly left of center, ever white and ever polite sensitivities. I refer, of course, to verse 35a which reads: “Let sinners be consumed from the earth, and let the wicked be no more.”

A couple of things need to be kept in mind here. First, this is a payer expressed to God. It is one thing to ask God to rid the world of the wickedness we perceive. It is quite another to take that task on oneself whether it be through the more direct means of genocide or the softer methods of punitive legislation against perceived vice. Jesus did not commission his disciples to create a moral society, much less to “take back America” for him. Judgment there surely will be, but that’s God’s business.

Second, we do ourselves no favors by “softening” the scriptures. Of course it would be nice if the kingdom could come on earth as in heaven without changing anything (at least the things I don’t want changed). But in reality, the greatest impediment to the kingdom is sin, not merely or even primarily personal vices, but the systemic violence, oppression and abuse inherent in the powers that be. As much as it goes against the grain, we need to pray for sinners to be consumed from the earth and for the wicked to be no more. Of course, we must also recognize that we are praying against ourselves. We are, after all, complicit in systemic evil in ways that we do not even recognize. So we need to be mindful of what we are asking God to do. The line between good and evil runs through the middle of every human heart. Thus, if God were to execute judgment in military fashion, most of us would end up casualties of war. The earth and its creatures would be collateral damage. Obviously, that is not the outcome God seeks. Eradicating evil from creation is a slow, painful and exacting operation. As we will learn in the next reading from Romans, it is a process under which not only humanity, but all of creation groans. Liberation from evil comes about only through repentance-a radical reorientation of the heart. Hearts seldom turn on a dime. Generally speaking, they turn more like aircraft carriers. They move in increments so small that they are hardly visible. Only after traveling a great distance is it possible to see just how profound that fraction of a degree change actually was.

Romans 8:22-27

“The expression… ‘the whole creation’ includes the entire range of animate and inanimate objects on earth and in the heavens.” Jewett, Robert, Romans: a Commentary, Hermeneia-A Critical and Historical Commentary on the Bible (c. 2007 by Fortress Press) p. 516. The groaning of creation as it awaits liberation stands in stark relief to the Roman hymns and poems declaring the rejoicing of creation at the rise of Augustus Caesar and his successors. Ibid. The Pax Romana imposed by Rome was no true peace according to St. Paul. He sees right though Rome’s nationalist propaganda. Rome’s “peace” was nothing other than institutionalized war against the masses of humanity at the bottom of the societal pyramid. The consequences of nation state institutionalized violence and enslavement on the non-human world are even clearer in our own time as we witness the mass extinction of animal species, destruction of forests and pollution of our rivers, lakes and oceans. Yet Paul points out that the creation is subjected to futility “in hope.” Vs. 20-21. Its endurance is not for the sake of pointless misery. The creation longs for the liberation it already recognizes in the children of God. Vs. 21. For Paul, the church is not merely the future of humanity, but the destiny of all creation. The agony experienced by creation and shared by the children of God is not raw, pointless suffering. It is the birth pangs of the new creation. It can therefore be borne in “hope.” Again, like the psalmist, Paul asserts that the universe is “creation” and not merely cosmos. It has a beginning in the creative act of God and an end toward which God is bringing it-an end not simply in terms of completion but as goal or purpose.

“The Spirit helps us in our weakness” (Vs. 26) or, as one commentator puts it, “Nor are we alone in our struggles. The Holy Spirit supports us in our helplessness.” The Epistle to the Romans, Sanday, W., Headlam, A.C., (c. 1977 by T. & T. Clark Ltd.) p. 212. God shares the agony of a creation in bondage to human exploitation and cruelty. It is for this reason that the Spirit of God can offer prayer for what we most need but cannot yet fully comprehend. The Spirit alone knows what it truly means for us to pray “Thy Kingdom come, they will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” The Spirit alone is able to transform us into persons capable of living in God’s kingdom, a people who will recognize the coming of that kingdom with joy rather than with dread. Our own prayers are often bent toward our selfish interests and distorted by our myopic perspectives. But the “Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.” Vs. 27. This lesson gives us the Holy Spirit as the inspiration of transformative hope.

It seems that we are transformed by that for which we hope and long for. Hope for success, recognition and wealth are powerful motivators. They drive our capitalist economy, but are they worthy of hope? Success is an elusive goal, always one step ahead of us. Recognition is often not worth the envy and ill will that frequently comes with it. As for wealth, it is an addictive substance. The more one has, the more one wants and the less it satisfies. Much energy and talk (mostly talk) has gone into increasing economic opportunities for more people in our society. While there is nothing wrong with that, opportunities do nothing for people incapable of using them wisely and well. For those whose hopes are misdirected, more opportunity means only more rope with which to hang oneself. The hope for a new heaven and a new earth is cosmic in scope. It is a hope for the wellbeing of all creation transcending personal interests. Because sin turns us in upon ourselves, we are incapable of hoping for and naturally will not pray “that God’s will” rather than our own “be done.” The Spirit is needed to draw us out of ourselves, raise our gaze beyond our own selfish interests and focus us on the higher vision of God’s glorious intent for all creation.

John 15:26-27; 16:4b-15

This reading is hard to follow without having read the entire Farewell Discourse at John 13-17. You might want to do that before proceeding further. Comprehension is made all the more difficult by the lectionary peoples’ decision to excise the first four verses of chapter 16. You should read John 16:1-4 at the very least. There you will learn that the whole point of this discussion about the coming of the “Counselor,” “the Spirit of Truth” is to prepare the disciples for the hostility and violence they will encounter following Jesus’ crucifixion. As pointed out in my post for Sunday, May 17, 2015, this warning might well reflect the rejection of the Jesus movement by the reconstituted Sanhedrin at the close of the 1st Century. Yet I think that it reflects as much the general hostility toward Jesus throughout the world at large of which the Jewish community was merely a microcosm.

Of particular importance are verses 8-11 which describe the role of the Spirit. The Spirit convinces the world concerning sin, righteousness and judgment. Vs. 8. It is important to recall that for John, sin is not the transgression of any particular law, rule or statute. Sin is revealed through the way in which the Son who was sent by the Father is received. Sin is revealed in the desertion of Jesus by disciples who can not endure his “hard” teachings. John 6:60-65. Sin is revealed in the cowardice of those who believe Jesus, but will not confess him for fear of persecution. John 12:42-43. Sin is revealed in the blindness of the religious rulers who refuse to acknowledge Jesus even in the face of irrefutable testimony to his marvelous works. John 9:13-34. Sin is revealed in Judas’ betrayal of Jesus (John 13:21-30); Peter’s denial of Jesus (John 18:15-27); and Pilate’s placing his loyalty to Caesar over his recognition of Jesus’ innocence. John 19:12-16. We may have all kinds of notions about right and wrong. But it is impossible to identify, recognize and acknowledge sin apart from knowing Jesus.

Similarly, righteousness cannot rightly be understood apart from God’s verdict on Jesus’ faithful life, obedient death and glorious resurrection. Throughout John’s gospel, various people render their own judgments on Jesus. But the final judgment, the court of last appeal belongs to God. God raises Jesus from death thereby rendering all other judgments null and void. Jesus is the Son sent by God for the life of the world. All who believe this and put their trust in the Son are righteous. So, too, the final judgment upon Jesus illuminates God’s verdict against the world. In crucifying Jesus, the world shows its true colors. It is the rebel creation that murders the most precious gift its Creator has to give-the gift of the Creator’s self. The world’s religious institutions, the world’s governmental structures and the world’s people all conspire in the murder of the Son. That is the truth about who and what we are. God sent the Son and, when he was murdered and rejected, raised the Son up and continues to offer the Son to the very world that murdered him. That is who and what God is.

Again, I will be accused of reading Augustinian Trinitarian thought into verses 12-15. Perhaps, but I truly believe Augustine got this right. So if I am guilty of anything it is plagiarism or at least I would be guilty if I claimed this reading as my own. Just as the Father has given “all” that he has to Jesus, so the Spirit takes what is Jesus’ and declares it to the disciples. Vss. 14-15. The Spirit glorifies Jesus as does the Father. Vs. 14; John 12:28. This describes the internal workings of the Trinity whose differentiation in three persons exists only in their relations to each other. The Trinity’s external works are necessarily the work of the whole Trinity in perfect unity. The Spirit, then, is the presence of the resurrected Christ among his disciples communicating to them “all” that is God the Father.

Sunday, December 7th


Isaiah 40:1-11
Psalm 85:1-2, 8-13
2 Peter 3:8-15a
Mark 1:1-8

PRAYER OF THE DAY: Stir up our hearts, Lord God, to prepare the way of your only Son. By his coming strengthen us to serve you with purified lives; through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

“Prepare the way of the Lord,” say both the prophet in Isaiah and John the Baptist. How is that even possible? Last week Jesus made it clear to us that we cannot know the “when” and the “how” of his appearing. We can only wait for it. Yet as the apostle reminds us in our reading from the Second Letter of St. Peter, waiting is not a passive activity. Though we don’t know the when and the how, we know the “what,” and the “what” is Jesus. Because Jesus is present to us even now in his resurrected body, the community called “church,” the kingdom is present now also. The kingdom is not out in the distant future, but even now breaking into our present existence. The church is that “way of the Lord” about which the gospel speaks.

I believe that we disciples of Jesus have a lot of leveling off and clearing away to do in order for the church to be the “highway of our God.” My own congregation has been struggling simply to clear our building of obstacles for persons with difficulty walking. Our construction of a ramp and plans for remodeling our sanctuary and fellowship space to make them accessible to all is coming at a significant expense. As you might expect, it is difficult to agree on a plan that meets with everyone’s approval and respects everyone’s concerns about preserving the sanctity of what we have come to regard as “holy space.”

And that is the easy part. More difficult to clear away are the invisible obstacles. These are the attitudes and behaviors we have developed that keep people away from us, particularly younger people. According to a recent study done by the Barna Group, many young people view the church as overprotective of its traditions, practices and the opinions of its members. They seek a faith that connects with their daily lives, but very often the issues that affect and concern young people most are taboo for traditional church goers. Efforts to engage issues involving sexuality, climate change, income disparity and racial equality are often “too hot” for a community that prefers quiet, polite and undisturbed fellowship to serious engagement with life as young people experience it.

Contrary to popular perceptions, young people are not “turned off” with religion or hostile toward God. In fact, one reason young people leave the church is that there is too little God. One-third of the folks interviewed by Barna said “church is boring” (31%). One-quarter of these young adults said that “faith is not relevant to my career or interests” (24%) or that “the Bible is not taught clearly or often enough” (23%). Sadly, one-fifth of these young adults who attended a church as a teenager said that “God seems missing from my experience of church” (20%). Unfortunately, much of what has to be cleared away from the highway of our God is of our own making. We have got too much ritual, too many activities and too little Jesus. Our programing has gotten in the way of our proclaiming a biblical message engaging and relevant to the lives of young people!

Another problem appears to be that the church is perceived as being hostile toward science. Once again, Barna found that “the most common of the perceptions in this arena is ‘Christians are too confident they know all the answers’ (35%). Three out of ten young adults with a Christian background feel that ‘churches are out of step with the scientific world we live in’ (29%). Another one-quarter embrace the perception that “Christianity is anti-science” (25%). And nearly the same proportion (23%) said they have ‘been turned off by the creation-versus-evolution debate.’” While I believe that the creation/evolution battle has, for the most part, been put to rest in my own Lutheran denomination, it is very much alive and well elsewhere in the church. Moreover, a disproportionate number of Christians still cling to long discarded unscientific notions about climate change, homosexuality, contraception and medical treatment generally for ideological reasons. That contributes to the caricature of people of faith as ignorant, backwards and uneducated.

Finally, and most distressingly, young people find churches unfriendly. I am not talking about obvious things, like greeting visitors, introducing them around and inviting them down to the coffee hour. Most churches do all of that. The unfriendliness usually sets in after these newcomers decide to give the church a try and start getting involved. I could have retired years ago if I had a dollar for every time I have heard a long time member crush the tentative suggestion of a new comer with remarks like, “Well, in this church we have always done…” “It has always been our practice…” “That’s not what we do here…” In short, we would love to have new members-as long as they learn to do things our way, think as we do and act in ways we believe are appropriate for church. Young people have no interest in becoming part of a community where their questions and ideas are not welcome. They have no desire to become part of a community where they have no influence and where their voice is not heard. Come to think of it, this old coot wouldn’t like that either!

I can say that I have heard these same complaints from many of the young people I have spoken with over the last several years. We in the church might feel that these criticisms are unfair and not altogether true. That may be so. Like all generalizations, the Barna findings cannot be applied across the board in every respect for all churches. Furthermore, I don’t believe most churches intend to be judgmental, dismissive or unwelcoming. But regardless of whether the above criticisms of the church are fair and notwithstanding our good intentions, the fact remains that young people looking at the church do not see Jesus. That is a huge problem that we cannot afford to ignore. Like it or not, ours is the burden of making straight the way of the Lord. So how do we go about doing that?

At this point, it is tempting to suggest all kinds of reforms, strategies and programs designed to make our churches more open to younger people. There is nothing necessarily wrong with that, but if that is our first step, it is doomed to failure. What we need first and foremost is a change of heart. As long as we continue to view the younger generation as the means for perpetuating our institutional existence, we can never hope to engage them in any meaningful way. People always know when they are being used. Jesus sent his church out to proclaim salvation for all people. He did not send us out to recruit all people to save our institutions from going under. Too much of what passes for evangelism these days consists of just that. But if we can finally get it through our heads that the church is the Body of Christ given for the sake of the world rather than a private club existing for the benefit of its members, we will have taken a huge step toward making straight the way of the Lord.

For a summary of the Barna report cited above, see this link.

Isaiah 40:1-11

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.

Nachmu, Nachmu, ami omar elohachem or “Comfort, Comfort my people,” says your God. This heading inspired the title, “Book of Consolations” for Isaiah 40-55. As noted above, most of this section of the book was composed sometime in the 500s-two hundred years after the time of the prophet whose oracles are found in Isaiah 1-39. Having been destroyed by Nebuchadnezzar’s army in 587 B.C.E., Jerusalem was now little more than a heap of ruins. The prophet’s commission to cry out words of comfort and consolation to this broken and uninhabited city is reminiscent of God’s command to Ezekiel in chapter 37 of that book to prophesy to the valley filled with dead bones. In both cases, speaking would appear to be a futile exercise. Yet because the prophet speaks the life giving word of God, even the dead cannot remain unmoved. John’s Gospel builds on this understanding by characterizing Jesus as “the Word made flesh.” God is not merely “as good as his word.” God is God’s word. John 1:1.

Speak tenderly to Jerusalem,
and cry to her that she has served her term,
that her penalty is paid, that she has received from the Lord’s hand
double for all her sins.” Vs. 2.

It is not the case that sin can be quantified and erased by a proportionate punishment. Rather, the point is that the Babylonian conquest and subsequent Exile has done what God intended for it to do. Israel is now in the same position she was while in Egypt and God now promises a new act of salvation similar to the Exodus.

‘In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord,
make straight in the desert a highway for our God.

Between the City of Jerusalem and the area between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers where the exiles were living stands a vast desert of rocky hills where the temperatures soar into the triple digits and virtually no water is to be found. Yet just as God once prepared a way through the sea for the Israelites to escape from the armies of Pharaoh, so now God is preparing a way through this forbidding desert for the exiles to return to Jerusalem.

A voice says, ‘Cry out!’ vs. 6. It is important to keep in mind that there were no quotation marks in the Hebrew text. Those appearing in the English translation represent the judgment of the interpreter. Many scholars feel that the translators have misplaced the quotation marks in this chapter. Rather than placing the end of the quote after “what shall I cry?”, many scholars believe that the quotes should close at the end of verse 7. In that case, the key verses read as follows:

A voice says, ‘Cry out!’
And I said, ‘What shall I cry? All people are grass,
their constancy is like the flower of the field.
The grass withers, the flower fades,
when the breath of the Lord blows upon it;
surely the people are grass.’
[The voice responds, ‘Yes, it is true]
The grass withers, the flower fades;
but the word of our God will stand for ever.
[Therefore,] Get you up to a high mountain,
O Zion, herald of good tidings;
lift up your voice with strength,
O Jerusalem, herald of good tidings,
lift it up, do not fear; say to the cities of Judah,
‘Here is your God!’

In my view, this placement yields a more coherent reading.

“Surely the people are grass.” Vs. 7. Many Hebrew Scripture scholars believe this fragment to be the gloss of a later editor. Be that as it may, it fits perfectly the historical and canonical contexts. The remnant of Israel is indeed as frail as grass. The exiles have been living for a generation in a foreign land. They are losing their language. Their young people, who have no memory of Jerusalem’s glorious past, are neglecting worship and perhaps even deserting to the gods of Babylon. Israel is a dying culture of graying heads. Nevertheless, it is not the strength and vigor of the people, but the word of the Lord that will accomplish the miraculous second exodus from Babylon to Judah. Unlike the legacy of nations, tribes and civilizations that flower and fade, the word of the Lord remains forever.

“herald of good tidings” In stark contrast to the prophet Isaiah whose ministry took place during the Assyrian period under Kings Jotham, Ahaz and Hezekiah, this prophet brings no word of warning or judgment. His or her word is strictly one of good news and glad tidings.

“Say to the cities of Judah, ‘Here is your God!’” vs. 10. Throughout his ministry, the prophet Isaiah of the 8th Century (Isaiah 1-39) hoped for a descendent of David that would live up to the high calling of Israel’s king. He was repeatedly disappointed. It is noteworthy that there is only one fleeting reference to David in the Book of Consolations (Isaiah 55:3) and no thought of restoring the line of kingship in Israel. Although some biblical sources portray the Davidic line as a gift from God to Israel, Israel itself was always deeply ambivalent about the office of the king. The prophet Samuel saw Israel’s move toward monarchy as a blatant rejection of God as Israel’s one and only king. See I Samuel 8 & I Samuel 12. The prophet of the Book of Consolations appears to be of the same mind. The only king to which s/he ever refers is God. See Isaiah 44:6.

Clearly, these words of comfort strike a joyous chord for a people that has heard too little comfort. Indeed, I find too often that, rather than being the joyous message of good news, my preaching only unloads additional burdens. “You are not compassionate enough toward the poor; you are not culturally sensitive enough; you are not a welcoming community; you do not give enough;” etc. While all of that might be true, it does little to motivate and much to discourage. The good news is that God bears the burden of bringing about a radically new state of affairs. That burden does not lie upon our shoulders. We are invited (not compelled, or “guilted”) to participate in God’s redemptive purpose for all creation. That puts everything in a new light!

Psalm 85:1-2, 8-13

This is a psalm of lament or, as Professor Walter Bruegemann would call it, “a psalm of disorientation.” According to Bruegemann, the psalms address human life in all of its varied seasons. There are seasons of wellbeing in which the faithful heart recognizes the blessedness of a life well lived, the rewards of righteous conduct and the well-oriented structure of human existence as it is lived out in the context of the created world, family and community. There are also seasons of anguish, brokenness and chaos when life does not make sense. Injustice, violence and cruelty seem to abound unchecked. Persons are so traumatized that recovery and healing seems impossible. God seems absent and life is disoriented. Then, too, there are seasons of re-orientation. After severe shock and trauma, life never returns to normal if “normal” means the way things used to be. You never get over losing a child. But you might discover in your grief ever deeper levels of family love, friendship and support that allow you to heal and grow. People who have been through periods of disorientation can never again sing the old songs from the season of well-being in quite the same way. They have learned how much life can hurt. But that is not all they have learned. They have come to recognize that God was indeed present even when God seemed most absent. Re-oriented people no longer expect to be spared from all suffering and disorientation, but they are firmly convinced that, come what may, God will always be with them. See, Bruegemann, Walter, The Message of the Psalms, (c. 1984 Augsburg Publishing House) p. 19.

This psalm begins with an affirmation of God’s faithfulness to Israel in the past. It is critical to understanding what is going on here. Though it is hard to discern the specifics, it is obvious that this prayer was composed during a turbulent time in Israel’s history. Times are hard and the psalmist acknowledges that this is due in no small part to God’s displeasure with Israel. Yet the psalmist can pray confidently because he or she has a recollection of occasions in the past where God has turned from anger to compassion. (see vss. 1-3). The psalm concludes with a confident affirmation of the psalmist’s belief that God will intervene to save once again as God has always done in the past.

Most remarkable is the certainty on the part of the psalmist that steadfast love, faithfulness, peace, righteousness and goodness constitute the future of God’s people. As the earlier verses of the psalm make clear, these words are spoken from a context of despair. The psalmist has lived through a long period of darkness and there is no light at the end of the tunnel. His or her hope arises from memory. The psalmist remembers the faithfulness of God to Israel in dark times past. These memories sustain him or her in the present darkness and open a porthole into a brighter hope.

Memory is important. I have heard stories all my life of deathbed conversions, but I have never seen one and rather doubt that they happen with much frequency. I say that because I believe faith is a habit of the heart. Trust develops in the context of relationships spanning years. Only a history of faithfulness and loyalty proves that the one you trust is in fact trustworthy. If the Lord has been your shepherd leading you through the traumas of adolescence, the challenges of establishing yourself in the world of work, the anguish of family life and the uncertainties that accompany growing older, then it is not such a stretch to believe that the Lord who has taken you so far will accompany you also over the last frontier. Faith like this cannot be learned in a crash course. So let us build these sustaining memories now by attending to worship, prayer, giving, service and daily meditation on the scriptures.

As always, I encourage you to read Psalm 85 in its entirety.

2 Peter 3:8-15a

The Second Letter of Peter is probably the last of the New Testament writings. It was probably composed well into the 2nd Century. The letter appears to be dependent in part on the brief Letter of Jude (cf. II Peter 2:1-8 and Jude 4-16).  The author speaks of the letters of the Apostle Paul in such a way as to suggest that these letters had been collected into a body of writings and were beginning to be treated as authoritative scriptures. II Peter 3:15-16. Thus, the II Peter would have to have been written well after the death of the Apostle Paul which could not have been much earlier than 65 C.E., and might have been considerably later according to some scholars. In either case, it is all but certain that the letter is not the work of Simon Peter, spokesperson for the Twelve Apostles in the gospels. It is likely the work of a second generation disciple influenced by the teachings of Peter and who therefore published his work under Peter’s name. As I have noted before, this was a common literary practice in antiquity that was not considered dishonest or deceptive. Rather, it was the way in which a disciple honored the master by whom he considered his work to have been inspired.

The twofold purpose of the letter seems to be 1) to address the disappointed hopes of those who had expected the immediate return of Jesus in glory; and 2) to warn the church against false teachers. There is not much said about these false teachers other than that they are evidently within the church, yet bring in false teaching “even denying the Master who bought them.” II Peter 2:1. Whatever their teachings, the author of the letter has nothing but contempt for them, heaping upon them no less than twelve verses of non-stop abuse. II Peter 2:10-22.

Sunday’s lesson dove tails very nicely with the gospel in which Jesus encourages his disciples to stay awake and “watch.” As I have said as recently as last week, I do not believe in the “crisis” experienced in the early church due to the alleged “delay of the parousia” (coming of Jesus in glory). I do believe nonetheless that, in the apostle’s day as now, we grow weary of not knowing what time it is. The church tends to veer between the extremes of apocalyptic certainty that the end is just around the corner or even on an ascertainable date on the one hand, and a demythologized confidence in the purely metaphorical meaning of these passages that renders them harmless and irrelevant. Whether one prefers to believe in a date certain for the end, or whether one prefers a humanistic confidence in the inevitable march of human progress, it amounts to the same thing. It locates our place along a continuum thereby answering that vexing question, “are we there yet?”

The apostle does not give us any such satisfaction here. On the one hand, like Jesus, he insists that the universe as we know it is destined to pass away. Until that process is complete, we wait. Vs. 12. Our waiting is not passive, however. Knowing what we do about the end, we need to be asking ourselves “what sort of persons ought we to be in lives of holiness and godliness.” Vs. 11. If you know the future of creation is Jesus, then your life should conform to Jesus in the present age-even if such a life takes the shape of the cross. Disciples of Jesus are called to live in God’s future now.

Mark 1:1-8

This new church year takes us back into the Gospel of Mark. Because Matthew and Luke both relied upon Mark in composing their own gospels, it is possible to examine how each of them made use of Mark’s material and so get a glimpse into their own theological outlooks and purposes. There is no such baseline for Mark, however. Or, to put it another way, Mark is the baseline as far as gospels are concerned. There were no gospels before him as far as we know and scholarly opinions about his source material are, in my humble opinion, speculative at best. So we must take Mark’s gospel as we find it.

One striking thing about Mark’s gospel is its brevity in comparison with Matthew, Luke and even John. Matthew and Luke each have a nativity story. John’s gospel opens with an eloquent poem about the Incarnation. Mark tells us nothing about Jesus’ birth, lineage or place of origin. We hear simply that Jesus came up from Nazareth in Galilee to be baptized by John. Vs. 9. Significantly, when Jesus comes up from the river Jordan after his baptism, he sees the heavens rent apart and the Spirit descending upon him like a dove. Vs. 10. Granted, the “he” could refer either to John or to Jesus. But since John has no reaction to this remarkable event and says nothing about it thereafter, it is more likely that Jesus is the only witness to the descent of the Holy Spirit and the voice proclaiming him God’s Son. Of course, we readers already know this because we have been told in verse 1 that Jesus is both Messiah and Son of God. This information is hidden from most other observers at this point and will remain so throughout the gospel narrative.

A passage from our Hebrew Scripture reading in Isaiah is cited to explain the role of John the Baptist. Like the prophet to the exiles, John is a voice proclaiming liberation and an Eden-like path homeward. Repentance, as used in common parlance, is too much associated with remorse, regret and guilt. While these feelings might very well be associated with repentance, they are minor players. Literally translated, “repentance” means “to turn around.” It is an opportunity to abandon the path of self-destructive sinfulness and pursue a different, life-giving way. You don’t have to repent. You get to repent.

One might wonder why the “Son of God” should need repentance. Again, the problem is that we typically think of repentance only in a negative sense. But as noted previously, to repent means simply to “turn around.” For us, this necessarily means turning away from sin, but that is not the whole story. More importantly, repentance is turning toward an invitation to new life from a gracious and compassionate God. As we will discover throughout Mark’s Gospel, Jesus’ life was one of turning always toward the will of his heavenly Father against all efforts by the devil, his enemies and even his own disciples to turn him in other directions. Consequently, it is possible to say that Jesus’ life was one of constant repentance.

The mood, then, for this gospel is one of joy, hope and anticipation. John has identified for us the “highway of salvation” proclaimed by the prophet in the Book of Isaiah. Mark’s gospel invites us to keep our eyes on him and watch him closely. For salvation will turn out to be nothing like what we think it is!