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Sunday, June 1st

ASCENSION OF OUR LORD

Acts 1:1-11
Psalm 93
Ephesians 1:15-23
Luke 24:44-53

PRAYER OF THE DAY: Almighty God, your blessed Son, our Savior Jesus Christ, ascended far above all heavens that he might fill all things. Mercifully give us faith to trust that, as he promised, he abides with us on earth to the end of time, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

Yes, I know that the Ascension of our Lord falls on Thursday, May 29th. Nevertheless, to the consternation of my more liturgically astute colleagues, Trinity celebrates it on the last Sunday of Easter. At least that has been the case for the last six years of my pastorate here. I have always believed that Ascension, like Epiphany, is an essential episode in the story of our Lord. But my chances of pulling together enough worshipers to observe it on a Thursday are slim to none and you know who just left. Better to recognize the Ascension of our Lord on the wrong day than not at all. At least that is how I see it.

I must confess, though, that transitioning from John’s gospel to St. Luke is a little like leaping from a speeding train onto a merry-go-round. John has convinced me that the Holy Spirit is nothing other than the presence of the Resurrected Christ among his disciples. In Luke, of course, Jesus directs the disciples to “stay here in the city [Jerusalem] until you have been clothed with power from on high.” Luke 24:49. That clothing with power from on high occurs in Acts 2:1-4 after a period of ten days during which the disciples engage in persistent prayer and select an apostolic successor to Judas. Acts 1:12-26. Luke’s sequence of events forms the basis of our liturgical year. Unfortunately for me, both Luke’s chronology and his theology have been undermined over the last four weeks by our readings from John. John could never have imagined a hiatus of fifty days between Jesus’ resurrection and the reception of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit is as inseparable from Jesus as is the Father. So also Jesus is as inseparable from his disciples as from the Father. In John’s thinking, it is conceptually impossible for Jesus to depart from his disciples. Neither could Jesus be present to them as the resurrected Lord apart from the work of the Holy Spirit. Try as you may, there is simply no harmonizing these two apostolic witnesses, chronologically or theologically. Maybe jumping off the liturgical Easter train was not such a good idea after all!

Still, despite the cognitive dissonance I have created for myself by abandoning the lectionary, I believe Luke’s witness must also be heard at this time. It is not quite enough to say that Jesus’ presence continues with his disciples through the gift of the Holy Spirit. Luke would have us know that Jesus’ ascension to the right hand of the Father extends his presence to every corner of the universe. To say that Jesus is at the right hand of the Father is not to say that he is somewhere “beyond the blue” in glory land. It means rather that whatever God does, he does in and through Jesus. That is to say, we can no longer speak of God apart from God’s Son or speak of God’s acts apart from reference to Jesus. Every effort to understand God prior to, after or without Jesus ends in idolatry. That is why, when a disciple of Jesus picks up the Bible, s/he reads every word through the lens of Jesus. On Christ the solid rock we stand; all other ground is sinking sand-even if it is built on a foundation of biblical passages.

This is why we can say categorically that God does not punish sexual sins with AIDS or destroy cities with hurricanes to punish abortion or cause the death of American soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan to punish homosexuality. The cross is God’s act of unilateral disarmament; God’s decisive “no” to retaliatory justice. If God’s right hand is Jesus, it must follow that God does not resort to violence; God does not retaliate; and God does not employ coercive force to get his way. That may be the way Caesar runs his empire, but it is not the way God reigns over the universe.

Herein lies the grounding for Christological pacifism. Jesus is God’s way of bringing about God’s reign. Jesus rejected all means of kingdom building through use of violence when he turned down the devil’s offer to give him the power and glory of all the world’s kingdoms. Jesus steadfastly refused to employ violence even in his own defense and would not allow his disciples to defend him with violence. The kingdom of God is worth dying for. But it ceases to be God’s kingdom when you believe you must kill for it. If using violent force to defend the life of God’s only beloved Son is not justified, when can the use of violence ever be justified?

Nonetheless, the myth of necessary violence has been so thoroughly ingrained in our psyches that we have a hard time imagining a world without it. Violence has permeated the entertainment media from cartoons to police dramas. The plot always seems to suggest that violent means are necessary to subdue violent people. We have been indoctrinated for generations into believing that peace can only be maintained through maintaining the ability and determination to kill. When Wayne LaPierre of NRA fame said that “the only way to stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun,” he was only articulating a deeply held American cultural creed. Your survival, your security and your freedom depend on your willingness and ability to kill anyone who threatens you.

Sadly, the church has bought into that logic. Apart from our Anabaptist sisters and brothers, the church has for the most part lived a schizophrenic existence. We have confessed the prince of peace while blessing the wars of our host nations and glorifying the sacrifice of human lives made to the false god of national security. The theological stratagems we have constructed to justify our alliance with violence, the “just war theory, “two kingdoms” doctrine or “Christian realism,” are best understood as corporate psychic defense mechanisms enabling us to overcome this glaring contradiction. There is no better evidence of their failure than the psychological distress of so many returning veterans deeply scarred by all that they have experienced. Theological rationalizations for violence work just fine on the black board. On the battlefield where real people are called upon to hold together in heart and mind the conflicting commands to love the neighbor and kill the enemy, not so much.

Of course, we who call ourselves pacifists have no claim to moral superiority. We are just as vulnerable to the lure of violent conduct as everyone else. Violence is not limited to the threat or infliction of bodily harm. It includes any type of coercive action to compel, manipulate or intimidate another. We find this sort of violence all too often in the class room, in the board room, in the work place, in our churches and in our families. I am a violent man frequently tempted to resort to violent solutions. I get impatient with people who will not be persuaded to see things my way. No, I don’t own a gun or a pair of brass knuckles. But as a parent, attorney and pastor, I have learned to use the power of position to get what I want. That kind of violence can be just as hurtful and destructive as threatening someone with a weapon.

We are a violent people. Left to ourselves, we would devour each other. But Jesus reminds us that we have not been left to ourselves. We are not orphans. We have been called away from the violent reign of Caesar to abide under the gentle rule of Jesus, God’s tender and merciful right hand. This news is just too good to pass up. That is why I celebrate Ascension-even if I have to do it out of season.

Acts 1:1-11

A couple of things stand out here. First, the word “to stay with” used in vs. 4 of the NRSV can also mean “to eat with.” Meals are an important feature of Jesus’ ministry throughout the gospels, particularly in Luke where it seems Jesus is always at, going to or coming from a meal. Luke’s gospel makes a point of introducing the resurrected Christ in the context of meals. It was in the breaking of bread that Cleopas and his companion recognized the risen Christ. See Luke 24:28-31. When Jesus appears to the Twelve, he asks them for food and he eats in their presence. Luke 24:36-43. As we have seen throughout the book of Acts, meals continue to remain a central feature of the early disciples’ life together. See, e.g., Acts 2:41-47. Meals were about far more than food consumption in 1st Century Hebrew culture. Who you were was defined in large part by the people with whom you shared your table. Jesus was forever getting himself into trouble by eating with the wrong sorts of people. As we have seen, Peter got himself into hot water with some of the church leaders in Jerusalem for going in to eat with Cornelius and his family, all of whom were Gentiles. Acts 11:1-18. The in breaking of God’s kingdom is nowhere more evident than at the open table of the Lord where hospitality is afforded to all.

My second observation has to do with the promise of the Holy Spirit. Clearly, the disciples are not ready to be witnesses to Jesus. Their question about whether Jesus will now restore the kingdom to Israel betrays their lack of comprehension. The kingdom is not for Israel only but for Samaria and even the ends of the earth. Vs. 8. But this will not become clear to the disciples just yet. At Pentecost, the Spirit will fill them and they will preach to Jews from all over the empire that will form the core of the church. That is only the beginning. Philip will bring the gospel to the Samaritans and Peter will, much against his scruples to the contrary, preach the gospel to the Gentiles. Paul will begin carrying the good news of Jesus Christ “to the end of the earth.” Vs. 8.

Third, the Holy Spirit will enable the disciples to continue the ministry of Jesus-his preaching, his healing and his suffering and death. Thus, as noted previously, the Holy Spirit is nothing less than the more intimate presence of Jesus in and through the disciples. The miracle stories at the beginning of Acts are intended to illustrate how the healing power of Jesus is still very much present in the church.

Finally, I am not sure what to make of verse 11 where the angels tell the disciples that “this Jesus who was taken from you into heaven will come in the same way you saw him go into heaven.” Acts 1:11. Is Luke referring to some second coming of Jesus at the end of time, or to the outpouring of the Holy Spirit soon to occur on Pentecost? Though I have always assumed the former, it is tempting to interpret this verse as pointing forward to Pentecost. Just as Jesus was taken into heaven, we read in the second chapter of Acts that as the disciples were gathered together on the day of Pentecost, “a sound came from heaven like the rush of a mighty wind…” Acts 2:1-2. Although the identification of Jesus with the Spirit in Luke-Acts is perhaps not as strong as in the Gospel of John, the Pentecost transformation of the disciples from clueless to articulate preachers of God’s kingdom more than suggests that Jesus is now “in” them. John 14:15-20.

Psalm 93

The acclimation, “The Lord is King,” seems to echo proclamations of kingship found in the Hebrew Scriptures, e.g., “Absalom is king” (II Samuel 15:10) and “Jehu is King” (II Kings 9:13). This has led some scholars to conclude that this psalm was used in an annual festival, possibly Tabernacles, to enact or celebrate the kingship of Israel’s God. Rogerson, J.W. and McKay, J.W., Psalms 51-100, The Cambridge Bible Commentary (c. 1977 by Cambridge University Press) p. 209. While plausible, this suggestion is speculative at best. It does appear nevertheless that the psalm is an enthronement liturgy sung at the Jerusalem temple to acclaim God’s reign over all the universe. Vs. 5.

Enthronement ceremonies are believed to have originated in Mesopotamia. Weiser, Artur, The Psalms, A Commentary, The Old Testament Library (c. 1962 by S.C.M. Press, Ltd.) p. 617. Thus, scholars tend to date this psalm after the Babylonian Exile, viewing it as a liturgy for worship in the second Jerusalem temple. This reasoning is not conclusive, however. Because the enthronement liturgies were present in Mesopotamia centuries before the rise of the Babylonian empire and found their way into Canaanite religion at an early date, it is altogether possible that Israel borrowed this imagery from its Canaanite neighbors during the period of the monarchies or even before. Ibid. 618. In either case, the psalmist expresses the conviction that Israel’s God is enthroned triumphantly over the waters and so also over all sources of chaos, violence and injustice that threaten human life and community. Indeed, these chaotic forces are called upon to give praise to God as their master. Anderson, Bernhard, Out of the Depths: The Psalms Speak for us Today (c. 1983 by Bernhard Anderson, pub. by The Westminster Press) p. 178.

The reference in verse 3 to “floods” rising up and “roaring” echoes the Babylonian creation myth in which the god, Marduk, battled and defeated the sea monster, Tiamat for supremacy. The waters generally and the ocean in particular are frequently symbolic of chaos, disorder and evil in ancient near eastern cultures. Moreover, Israel was not a seagoing people. Israelites feared the waters. The only seagoing Israelite in biblical history that comes to my mind is Jonah. We all know how that voyage ended! Yet as terrifying as the waters might be, they are no match for Israel’s God. As in the creation narrative of Genesis 1:1-2:3, there is no hint of any struggle for supremacy. God has established the world and it shall never be moved. Vs. 1. His throne “is established from of old…from everlasting.” Vs. 2.

This psalm does not assert that Israel is immune from danger and harm. The foods have been an instrument of God’s wrath against human evil generally and Israel’s faithlessness also. Moreover, the very presence of the waters indicates an awareness of destructive and chaotic power within creation over which human beings have no control. Faithfulness to and faith in God are therefore required in order for human beings to live confidently on this dangerous planet.

Ephesians 1:15-23

This remarkable passage consists of one single sentence in the original Greek. The Old Revised Standard Version retains the sentence structure making it impossible to read this lesson from the pulpit without hyperventilating. Thankfully, the New Revised Standard Version used for our readings has broken this passage down into bite size pieces. A preacher could generate more than a dozen sermons trying to unpack this profound expression of the mystery of faith.

I believe that this passage from Ephesians is a wonderful (if tightly packed, layered and condensed) statement of what Jesus’ ascension to the right hand of the Father means. The right hand of the Father is everywhere there is and, consequently, so is Jesus. The church is described as “the fullness of him who fills all in all.” Vs. 23. That is a bold statement. It says a great deal more than that Jesus is a revelation of God or God’s will. It says more than that Jesus is an exemplar, an expression of God’s image which might be found in any exemplary person who is, after all, created in God’s image. Jesus lives not merely as an idea, but as the glue that holds the universe together and the means by which God is bringing all things into submission to God’s will. The telos (Greek word for “end” or “purpose”) of the world is Jesus. To follow Jesus is to go with the grain of the universe. To go against him is to cut against that grain, to be on the wrong side of nature and history.

Luke 24:44-53

Luke must have believed the ascension to be an important piece of the Jesus narrative. Why else would he have told the story twice? This event is both the grand finale of Luke’s gospel and the springboard into the story of the early church in Acts. The two accounts are somewhat different, however. The gospel lesson has Jesus lifting up his hands and blessing his disciples (Vs. 50)-something Zachariah could not do at the beginning of the story because he was unable to speak. Luke 1:21-22. Jesus has now re-opened the channel of God’s blessing upon Israel and soon the tongues of the disciples will be empowered by the Holy Spirit to prophesy once again. I might be reading too much into the story of Zechariah and what I see as its relationship to the ascension account. But I think it is significant that Luke’s gospel begins and ends with blessing. It is also interesting that the gospel ends with the disciples being continually in the temple blessing God whereas it began with the people gathered at the temple to receive God’s blessing. Luke begins with Zechariah being rendered unable to speak God’s blessing. Acts begins with the disciples empowered to speak the gospel in every language under heaven. I am not altogether sure what to make of these suggestive correspondences, but I have a strong suspicion that Luke is up to something important here.

The disciples’ reaction to the ascension is markedly different in the gospel from what is described in the book of Acts. In the gospel, the disciples return from Bethany, the site of the ascension “with great joy.” Vs. 54. In Acts, however, the disciples seem clueless and mystified. They are left dumbstruck, staring into the sky. An angel visitation is needed to clarify for them what just happened. Acts 1:10-11.

Another feature of Acts that does not appear in the gospel is the disciples’ question concerning the restoration of the kingdom of Israel. The question indicates a gross misunderstanding of Jesus’ ministry and precisely the sort of ethnocentric focus on a restored dynasty of David that Luke-Acts seems to be struggling against. But perhaps that is precisely why Luke opens his story of the church with Jesus dispelling such a notion. “Times and seasons” and the rise and fall of earthly nations should not be the concern of the disciples. Their concern should be for witnessing to Jesus and the kingdom he proclaims.

In the gospel Jesus reminds his disciples how he has told them repeatedly that “everything written in the law of Moses and the prophets and the psalms must be fulfilled.” Vs. 44. Then the text goes on to say that “he opened their minds to understand the scriptures.” Vs. 45. I do wonder what this means. I would love to know how to “open minds.” A skill like that would make my job ever so much easier. But perhaps I am focusing too much on the present moment. After all, Jesus has been toiling for years to open the minds of his disciples. That the cork finally pops off at this moment does not change the fact that Jesus has been applying pressure to those chronically closed minds for his entire ministry. This opening, then, might not actually have been as instantaneous as first appears. Certainly the parallel account in Acts suggests that there is a good deal of opening yet to be done.

Everything written about Jesus in the” Law of Moses, the prophets and the psalms” must be fulfilled. Jewish biblical scholars divided the Hebrew scriptures into three categories. The first and most significant was the Law of Moses consisting of the first five books of the Bible (Genesis to Deuteronomy). The second was the prophets broadly consisting of Joshua, Judges, I & II Samuel, I & II Kings, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Isaiah and the Twelve (the Minor Prophets). Third, there were the “writings,” the largest of which is the Psalms but also included are Proverbs, Job, Ecclesiastes, Song of Solomon, Lamentations, Daniel, Esther, Ezra-Nehemiah, I & II Chronicles, Ruth, Song of Solomon and Esther. This is perhaps another clue to what it means for one’s mind to be opened. It makes a difference how you read the scriptures. The church’s hermeneutical principle, our way of making sense of the scriptures, is Jesus. Jesus opens up the scriptures to our understanding just as the scriptures testify to Jesus.

 

 

Sunday, December 1st

First Sunday of Advent

Isaiah 2:1–5
Psalm 122
Romans 13:11–14
Matthew 24:36–44

Prayer of the Day: Stir up your power, Lord Christ, and come. By your merciful protection save us from the threatening dangers of our sins, and enlighten our walk in the way of your salvation, for you live and reign with the Father and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

Most striking is the introductory verse to this Sunday’s reading from Isaiah: “The word which Isaiah the son of Amoz saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem.” Isaiah 2:1. I only see words when I encounter them on the written page. But since these words are coming to Isaiah from the Lord and I doubt that they were delivered by the postal service, I have to wonder how he could “see” them. What does it mean to “see” a word? I expect that it requires the use of a very much neglected sense in our contemporary culture: imagination. Prophetic preaching like that of Isaiah does not proclaim doctrinal truths or give moral instruction. It reaches into the depths of our hearts and minds to evoke visions. It challenges us to re-imagine our world. It causes us to question our assumptions about the way things are and invites us to consider alternatives. Like someone switching on a lamp in a dark room, Isaiah’s preaching floods our imaginations with light revealing all manner of objects, shapes and colors we were not able to see before. Suddenly, the way ahead is clear. What appeared in the darkness to be a menacing giant turns out to be just an ordinary coat rack in the light of day.

If you want to see the words of Isaiah, you don’t have to go any further than New York. The United Nations garden contains many sculptures that have been donated by its member states. Among them is a statue entitled “Let Us Beat Swords into Plowshares.” This bronze statue represents the figure of a man holding a hammer in one hand and, in the other, a sword which he is making into a plowshare. It symbolizes the prophet’s vision of an end to war and the conversion of weapons into creative tools for the benefit of all humanity.  Made by artist Evgeniy Vuchetich, the statue was donated by the former Soviet Union in 1959. Imagine that: the word of a prophet from the 8th Century B.C.E. inspiring visions of peace behind the 20th Century iron curtain!

You can catch another glimpse of Isaiah’s word out in Colorado Springs where Mike Martin is learning to turn swords into plowshares — or rather, forge garden tools from AK-47s. His non-profit company RAWtools, Inc. refashions into gardening tools guns he receives from gun repurchasing programs and those voluntarily surrendered to him by citizens. Martin came up with this idea in the aftermath of the tragic Aurora, Colorado theater massacre. The company has since drawn wide public attention and support. Once again, this enterprise was inspired by Isaiah’s vision of world peace.

So what does this mean? All we have here is a fifty year old statue and a slightly eccentric man on a mission. That isn’t exactly an outbreak of peace, is it? Perhaps not. Then again, remember what Jesus told us about the mustard seed and the Kingdom of Heaven? (If not, check it out at Matthew 13:31-32). Our gospel for Sunday warns us to stay awake and be alert for signs of Jesus’ coming. It might appear as though the peace promised by Isaiah is nowhere on the horizon. But sometimes big things happen unexpectedly and without warning. Just ask the people of Sodom or those of Noah’s generation. Their famous last words? “Sure didn’t see that coming.” (At least that’s my guess.) It is dangerous to overlook signs of the kingdom however small and insignificant they might seem. We don’t know the day or the hour of Jesus’ coming that will usher in Isaiah’s day of peace. So keep awake and keep an eye out for the good word! This is not something you want to miss!

Isaiah 2:1–5

The introductory comment at verse 1 indicates that this chapter begins a collection of sayings associated with the prophet Isaiah that once constituted an independent collection. The material from our lesson was therefore not joined to the rest of what we now know as the Book of Isaiah until a later time. The prophesies introduced by this opening line probably extend at least until Isaiah 4:6 and may also include Isaiah 5:1-7; Isaiah 5:8-24; Isaiah 10:1-4; Isaiah 9:8-21; Isaiah 5:25, 26-30. Kaiser, Otto, Isaiah 1-12, A Commentary, The Old Testament Library (c. 1972 SCM Press Ltd.) p. 23.

Verses 2-5 are also found in Micah 4:1-4. This could mean that one prophet was relying upon the other, but the more probable explanation is that this oracle of salvation grew out of ancient Israelite cultic worship traditions from which both prophets drew. Kaiser, supra goes so far as to suggest that the saying was introduced into the works of both prophets by a later editor in the post-exilic period. Placement of such a liturgical expression of hope from pre-exilic times into the collected oracles of these pre-exilic prophets strengthened the prophetic witness and encouraged the post-exilic community in its struggle to understand its new role as God’s people in their changed circumstances.

Be that as it may, the saying in its present context (which is the only one that really interests me) juxtaposes in stark contrast the future declared by Israel’s God against the present reality of impending and actual war. In the midst of this violent geopolitical neighborhood where imperial superpowers vie for control and the smaller players seek to survive by playing one such empire off against the next through ever shifting alliances, the little nation of Judah is called to be something other than one more petty kingdom thrown into the mix. “The mountain of the house of the Lord shall be established as the highest of the mountains” says the prophet. Isaiah 2:2. Yet what exalts Judah is not her military might or her commercial power, but her Torah. Her covenant wisdom, not her sword will bring all nations under the righteous reign of Israel’s God. When the treasure of Torah is opened up to the nations, they will seek it eagerly and submit their disputes to God’s judgment there under. When perfect justice is so established, weapons will become obsolete. Resources dedicated to producing them can now be put to more productive use. Verse 5 concludes with a plea for Judah to begin doing now what she and all other nations must inevitably do in the end: walk in the light of the Lord. God’s people are called to live in God’s future now.

This passage presents a bold challenge to all of us in mainline churches that have reliably and unquestioningly supported the military, assuming it to be a necessary accessory to the “kingdom of God’s left hand” (To use a peculiarly Lutheran term). How might we begin “walking in the light of the Lord” in the midst of this very violent global village? In a society where trading sound bites and exchanging rhetorical barbs from across entrenched ideological battle lines passes for dialogue, how do communities of faith bear witness to a better way of conversing with one another about important issues? How do churches reflect to the world an alternative way of living together?

Psalm 122

This psalm is part of a collection within the Psalter designated “Songs of Ascent.” (Psalms 120-134) While the precise meaning of this title is unknown, it is probable that these psalms were used on the occasion of pilgrimages to Jerusalem by Diaspora Jews visiting the second temple built following the return from Babylonian Exile. It is important to keep in mind, however, that although these psalms were compiled into this collection following the Babylonian Exile, the psalms themselves or portions of them might well belong to a much earlier period.

The psalmist expresses devotion to and longing for Jerusalem. Verse 1 suggests that the pilgrim is overcome with awe upon arriving at the holy city and standing within its gates. Though probably used by post-exilic pilgrims visiting Jerusalem, these verses might well date back to the monarchic period of Judah when the kingdom of David was still intact. The psalmist refers to Jerusalem as the place where all the tribes come together. Vs. 4. Though this was surely the case during the reigns of David and Solomon, it is not clear whether and to what extent this practice was continued by the northern ten tribes after the kingdom was divided into Israel in the north and Judah in the south. The phrase may therefore indicate early composition between 1000 B.C.E. to 900 B.C.E. during the united monarchy. On the other hand, the reference might well be symbolic, reflecting the unifying function of Jerusalem for Diaspora Jews following the return from exile in 530 B.C.E.

Verse 6 seems to be a word play on “Jerusalem,” the shorter form of which is “Salem,” and “peace” which in Hebrew is “Shalom.” Thus, “Pray for the shalom of Jerusalem.” The term shalom means more than mere absence of conflict. It denotes wholeness, health and wellbeing. As I have often said before, I am not a big fan of interfaith dialogue as it seldom produces anything more than generalities and platitudes you can get at your local Hallmark store. However, I believe that Jews, Muslims and Christians might have a fruitful discussion about what the city of Jerusalem means in each of their respective traditions and how, working together, we might make it a place of peace.

Romans 13:11–14

This snippet from Paul’s letter to the Romans comes in the middle of some admonitions delivered to the Roman church. Paul has completed in Chapter 11 his lengthy discussion of Israel’s and the church’s role in God’s plan of redemption. Now he turns to practical pastoral concerns. Paul speaks more generally here than in his other letters, probably because this is a congregation Paul did not start and has never personally visited. Nevertheless, he appears to know several of the persons involved with the congregation at Rome, most notably Prisca (Priscilla) and Aquila who assisted him in founding the church at Corinth. Acts 18:1-4.

Paul begins by urging the Roman believers to “present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God.” Romans 12:1. He then warns them not to be conformed to the surrounding culture, but “transformed by the renewal of your mind, that you may prove what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.” Romans 12:2. These verses reflect the practical outcome of Paul’s understanding of church as the presence of and witness to the resurrected Christ in the midst of the world. The church’s life is to reflect God’s future, an alternative to the carnivorous culture of death that is the Roman Empire. Just as Jesus’ body was broken on the cross, the resurrected Body of Christ can expect resistance and opposition to its way of being in the world. Thus, the sacrifice Paul calls for here is not an afternoon of raking leaves out of the church parking lot. Being the church is a dangerous profession.

In the reading for today Paul urges the Roman congregation to “stay awake” and be alert, for “salvation is nearer to us now than when we first believed.” Romans 13:11. That theme is echoed in our gospel lesson from Matthew. The phrase that caught my eye in this reading was Paul’s call to “put on the Lord Jesus Christ.” Having had three of my kids in the high school band, I know firsthand the transformative effect of a uniform. The band uniform was a reminder to my children and their fellow band members that they were not just another bunch of high school kids. They were members of an organization that made certain demands on them, set them apart from the rest of the community and called them to a higher standard of conduct. They acted much differently when in uniform.

A uniform also raises expectations from outsiders. If fire breaks out in a building, you wouldn’t blame anyone for trying to get out-unless the person is wearing the gear of a fire fighter. You expect fire fighters to act differently in the face of a fire. You expect them to enter into the zone of danger. They are not supposed to run away from it. Similarly, when one puts on Christ one assumes the calling of a disciple of Jesus. As Jesus offered himself up as a living sacrifice, so his disciples are called to place themselves in harm’s way if necessary for the sake of God’s Kingdom.

Matthew 24:36–44

With the dawn of a new church year, we say farewell to Luke and embark on the gospel narrative given to us by Matthew. Though most scholars date both Matthew and Luke sometime after the destruction of the Jerusalem temple in 70 A.C.E., recent scholarship has questioned this dating. For example, John Noland, academic dean and lecturer in New Testament studies at Trinity College in Bristol, England believes that Matthew wrote his Gospel before the Jewish War that lead to the fall of Jerusalem. Noland, John, The Gospel of Matthew, The New International Greek Testament Commentary (c. 2005 Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.) p. 12. Noland notes that scholars dating the gospel after the Jewish War point to Matthew 22:7; Matthew 23:36-38 and Matthew 24:2 as reflecting memories of this traumatic event. However, given the strained political atmosphere of resentment toward Rome and the frequent and reckless insurgencies against Roman rule throughout the first century, it would not have been surprising that an astute observer like Jesus should have foreseen Jerusalem’s destruction as did Jeremiah in the years immediately before 587 B.C.E. Noland shares with most scholars the view that Matthew was dependent upon the Gospel of Mark and source material also available to Luke in constructing his own gospel. This means, of course, that both Mark and the source common to Matthew and Luke were also composed significantly earlier than most scholars assume. Consequently, the source material utilized by the gospel writers likely emerged during the life time of eye witness to Jesus life and ministry. It is conceivable also that the writers themselves were witnesses. If this is the case, we lose the historical gap between the gospel witness and the so called “Jesus of history.” While I still lean toward the majority view that Matthew post dates the Jewish War, I am keeping an open mind.

Matthew makes more specific citations to the Hebrew Scriptures than any of the other three gospels. This has led most scholars to conclude that his gospel is written for a Jewish Christian audience. Though the location of Matthew’s community cannot be determined with certainty, the prevailing view among New Testament scholars is that the community was located at Antioch in modern day Syria. Noland, supra, at 18. Though numerous attempts have been made to discern efforts on Matthew’s part to parallel his narrative of Jesus with Moses, the patriarchs or the people of Israel as a whole, none of them seem to hold up with any consistency. In my own humble opinion, Matthew was not attempting such a ridged comparison with any one particular Hebrew Scriptural narrative. Instead, he was intent on drenching his story of Jesus in Hebrew prophecy, employing numerous Old Testament parallels, citations and images in order to enrich Jesus’ portrait. Matthew portrays Jesus as a new Moses; a prophet in the tradition of Elijah; and a royal heir to the throne of David. In the end, though, none of these images is fully capable of containing him. Like the new wine poured into old wine skins, Jesus bursts through even the most powerful, eloquent and beautiful messianic images showing himself finally to be God’s only beloved Son.

There are many gospel events narrated only in the Gospel of Matthew. The coming of the Magi to the infant Jesus by the guidance of the star in the east which triggered the tragic slaughter of the innocents is found only in Matthew. Matthew alone has Jesus and his family sojourning in Egypt. Parables unique to Matthew include the story of the workers in the vineyard (Matthew 20:1-16); the story of the wise and foolish maidens (Matthew 25:1-13); and the account of the last judgment (Matthew 25:31-46). As we will see, these stories and parables help us understand Matthew’s particular focus as his witness to Jesus unfolds.

The gospel reading for Sunday calls upon the disciples to be prepared. I think that is the sum total of the message here. But for us that is frequently too little and too much. It is too little in the sense that we look for more to do than simply wait and hope. Literalist readers of the scripture turn the strange passages about those who are taken and those who are left in every which direction in an effort to figure out how and when the end of the world will come. Moreover, as Stanley Hauerwas points out, liberal progressive readers who have no use for mapping out the end times nevertheless assume that disciples of Jesus are capable of discerning the God intended direction history should take and use every means available to turn it in that direction. Hauerwas, Stanley, Matthew, Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible (c. 2006 by Stanley Hauerwas, Brozos Press) p. 204. In both cases, these readers are chasing the voices of false prophets claiming to know more than they do. The siren call of the false prophets would lure us away from following Jesus into a fruitless attempt to ferret out information that the Father has specifically withheld from us or goad us into a misguided seizure of the levers of political power in order to “make history come out right.”

“Both temptations-to employ Jesus’ apocalyptic imagery to predict the end time or to discern the movement of history-betray the character of Jesus’ training of his disciples. He is trying to teach them how they must live in the light of his coming. The dramatic character of apocalyptic language should help the disciples understand the challenge he presents to them. We, along with the disciples, make a disastrous mistake, however, if we allow our imaginations to be possessed by the images of apocalypse rather than by the one on whom these images are meant to focus our attention-that is, Jesus.”  Hauerwas, supra, p. 205.

Verses 40-41 in which Jesus speaks of two men working in the field and two women grinding at the mill at the coming of the son of man, one of each being “taken” and the other “left,” figure prominently in the Left Behind novels by Tim Lehaye and Jerry B. Jenkins. Because I don’t believe in the “rapture,” I naturally do not believe that these verses have anything to do with that fanciful event. Standing alone, it is not even obvious from these verses whether it is more desirable to be taken than left behind. However, in the context of the previous discussion about Noah’s salvation through the Ark and Lot’s rescue from Sodom’s destruction, it seems likely to me that being “taken” is equivalent to salvation on the day of the Son of Man. The wise maidens whose faithful watching resulted in their being received into the wedding celebration is instructive as is the judgment in favor of all who practiced compassion toward their vulnerable neighbors and so found a welcome from the Son at the last day. (Matthew 25:1-13 and Matthew 25:31-46).

Sunday, November 24th

Christ the King

Jeremiah 23:1–6
Psalm 46
Colossians 1:11–20
Luke 23:33–43

Prayer of the Day: O God, our true life, to serve you is freedom, and to know you is unending joy. We worship you, we glorify you, we give thanks to you for your great glory. Abide with us, reign in us, and make this world into a fit habitation for your divine majesty, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

The celebration of Christ the King on the last Sunday of the church year is a relatively new addition to the liturgical calendar. It was instituted in 1925 by Pope Pius XI in response to what he characterized as growing secularism. The old monarchies governing Europe had been dissolved by this time and had given way to the modern nation state. The church’s political power and social status were substantially diminished under these new regimes as the state increasingly asserted its autonomy and independence from religious influence. There was more at stake, however, than the church’s loss of political muscle. The new secular environment had become a breeding ground for dangerous and dehumanizing ideologies elevating loyalty to the nation state and its rulers over all other claims. As Pope Pius saw it, this new nationalism amounted to idolatry, constituting a threat both to the Christian faith and to human worth and dignity. Sadly, the horrific events that unfolded in the following decades proved him right. The celebration of Christ the King serves to remind us that, while the church throughout the world lives under many different governments all asserting their claims to the loyalty of her members, yet there is for the church only one King. A nation is only a group of people joined together by culture, ethnicity and force of humanly designed covenants. The church is a living Body joined as one by Christ, its Head. When loyalty to the Body of Christ conflicts with our allegiance to flag or country, “we must obey God rather than human authority.” Acts 5:29.

It would be a mistake to make our celebration of Jesus’ Kingship a rallying cry for the church to retake the status and power she has lost over the last couple of centuries. As I have said before, in our efforts to restore and rebuild the powerful and influential church of old, we may find ourselves at odds with the Spirit seeking a weak and fragmented body speaking truth to power from the margins of society. Ecumenical efforts to express the church’s unity through its institutions might actually be impeding the oneness and catholicity Jesus would have us find in the faithfulness of our witness. Although denominational mission strategies seem fixated on growth and getting bigger, it may very well be that Christ seeks a church small enough to recognize that her continued existence depends wholly upon him and that her members desperately need one another.

We also need to beware of the long held but deeply distorted views of Christ’s return as a violent monarch whose kingdom comes through overwhelming coercive force. Such images have frequently found expression throughout history in our art and hymnody. Modern prophets of violent divine conquest such as Tim LaHaye, Hal Lindsey and Harold Camping still find a ready audience. The NRA’s sacred mantra that the “only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun” is deeply ingrained in our culture. But the King in whom we place our hope and the hope of all creation is not a bigger than life version of John Wayne and he does not come riding into town in order to settle accounts by way of a shoot out. Our King meets the powers of evil with peacemaking, forgiveness and suffering love that finally will exhaust the powers of evil. Jesus’ victory has already been achieved on the cross. Love has already won. The church knows this (or at least it should). The rest of creation will just have to get used to it. That will take some time, but our King has all eternity to work with.

Jeremiah 23:1–6

Jeremiah pulls no punches here. He faults Judah’s kings, her “shepherds,” for recklessly leading the nation into a ruinous war with Babylon that resulted in the destruction of Jerusalem, the exile of a substantial number of Jews and the scattering of the remainder of the people into distant lands. His criticism of these rulers, however, goes far beyond the obvious failure of their geopolitical policies. By referring to them as “shepherds,” Jeremiah is reminding his hearers that kingship in Israel was never intended to be a position of privilege. At the coronation of a Judean king, the people prayed:

Give the king your justice, O God,
and your righteousness to a king’s son.
2 May he judge your people with righteousness,
and your poor with justice.
3 May the mountains yield prosperity for the people,
and the hills, in righteousness.
4 May he defend the cause of the poor of the people,
give deliverance to the needy,
and crush the oppressor.

Psalm 72:1-4. The king was to be the agent of God’s justice and compassion in Israel. The wellbeing of the people, particularly the most vulnerable members of society, was to be the king’s chief concern. King Zedekiah’s decision to release Judah’s slaves in accord with the provisions of the Torah in the face of imminent military invasion and his calculated revocation of that ruling when the threat seemed to recede demonstrates just how callus and dismissive the rulers of Jeremiah’s time had become to the responsibilities of kingship. See post from October 27th.  In response, God declares through the mouth of Jeremiah that he himself will take kingship into his own hands. God will gather the remnants of Judah from all the nations to which they have fled or been carried away in exile. God will lead them back to their land and shepherd them with justice and compassion. It seems here as though God were saying, “If you want something done right, you have to do it yourself.”

But then in verse 5 the Lord declares through his prophet that he will raise up a “righteous Branch” for David who will deal wisely and shall execute justice and righteousness in the land. This seems contrary to the previous declaration in which God appears to have given up altogether on the line of David and human kingship. It is possible that this oracle comes from an earlier period in Jeremiah’s career when he may still have hoped for a righteous king to emerge from David’s line. The passage might also be from a subsequent editor who held such a hope. However that might be, the canonical testimony is that kingship over God’s people is rooted in God’s reign over all of creation. That reign is characterized by care for the land, compassion for God’s people and faithfulness to God’s covenant. That no human ruler has ever come close to exercising such a gentle and peaceful reign suggests that the good life God intends for creation cannot be implemented by political means.

It has been said that “war is not merely an act of policy but a true political instrument, a continuation of political intercourse carried on with other means.” Carl von Clausewitz, On War. The converse is also true, namely, that politics is war by other means. It is after all through political arrangements, international treaties and multi-national commercial agreements that the dominance of the wealthier nations over the vast majority of poverty stricken peoples is maintained. The political structures that enforce grinding poverty, starvation and oppression are no less violent than terrorist attacks. Economic sanctions inflicting hunger and poverty on populations having little or no control over the governments these sanctions were intended to punish are acts of violence as devastating as any bombing raid. Most often, differences between the “military” and the “political” solution to a conflict are merely definitional. Violence is always the common denominator.

It is not for nothing, therefore, that Jesus refused to take hold of the levers of political power when they were handed to him on a silver platter by the devil. It is not for nothing that Jesus taught his disciples that the use of violence, whether offensively or defensively, is not an option for them. It is not for nothing that Jesus would not allow his disciples to use violence to defend him from crucifixion and that he also refused to invoke violent divine intervention against his enemies. It is not for nothing that God responded to the murder of his only begotten Son not with vengeance, but by raising him up and offering him to us again. Absolute renunciation of violence is not just the fringe position of a few Christians at the margins of orthodoxy. It stands at the heart of the New Testament witness to Jesus. If Jesus is our king, we can have no truck with violence whether on the battlefield or in the halls of congress.

Psalm 46

See my post from October 27th on which this psalm was one of the appointed lessons. Incidentally, this psalm was also the text for my sermon on that day. I will only add here that verse 9 emphasizes God’s emphatic commitment to “make all wars cease to the end of the earth.”

Colossians 1:11–20

For an excellent introduction to this epistle, see the Summary Article by Paul S. Berge, Emeritus Professor of New Testament on enterthebible.org. Of particular interest in this reading are verses 15-20. These passages are believed by most scholars to consist of an ancient Christian hymn to Christ that was incorporated into the letter by the author. As such, they demonstrate that from very early on the church understood Jesus’ life, death and resurrection to be an event of cosmic proportions with ramifications for the whole creation. The opening stanza of the hymn proclaims Jesus as “the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation.” Vs. 15. Yet he is also “the head of the body, the church…” vs. 18. Consequently, the church is the concrete expression of the presence of God in and for the world. This is a remarkable claim made for a teacher from an obscure town who was ultimately rejected by the leaders of his people, deserted by all of his followers and put to a cruel, shameful death by a Roman governor.

The cosmic scope of Jesus’ ministry is reflected in the claim that through him God “reconciled to himself all things, whether on earth or heaven, making peace through the blood of his cross.” Vs. 20. The resurrection of Jesus is therefore not merely the hope of individual believers. It is the destiny of all creation of which the church is but the first fruits. This bold assertion refutes the limited, non-biblical notion of salvation as a rescue operation to save as many souls as possible from a sinking ship. Clearly, God is determined to save the entire ship! That is what makes the gospel good news not only for disciples of Jesus, but for all creation.

The temptation, of course, is to “spiritualize” this passage. Paul does not wish for us to view our “inheritance of the saints in light” as a future event. These riches belong to us even now and should shape the way we live our lives and the way we handle our wealth. If the world remains unreconciled to God; if we are a people without a heavenly Father who promises to provide for all our needs; if the world is a place of ever diminishing resources-then the only sensible thing to do is grab as much of the pie as you can now before it disappears altogether. This is the survivalist mentality. If the reign of God has any meaning to such people, it is in the distant future, after death, in the sweet by and by. That is all well and good. But I have to live now.

Paul’s point, however, is that the inheritance of the saints in light is now. The fullness of God is present now in the community of faith, a community that is called to live now under the jurisdiction of God’s reign of abundance and peace. How else will the creation learn that reconciliation has been accomplished? How else will the world know that there is an alternative to our death spiral of endless consumer greed for more stuff and ruthless commercial exploitation of the earth to feed it? Unless the Body of Christ practices confidence in God’s reconciling power and the generosity it inspires, how will the world ever understand what human life is supposed to look like? How will people come to believe that the future of creation is resurrection rather than apocalyptic demise unless they see the reality of resurrection faith lived out by Jesus’ disciples?

Luke 23:33–43

This passage seems to put to bed once and for all any claim Jesus might have to kingship. His death is one reserved for insurrectionists, terrorists and those guilty of the most heinous crimes. Pilate inscribes over the cross the title “King of the Jews” so that everyone will understand that before you go claiming to be a king, you had better make sure you really are one. In Mark and Matthew Jesus is mocked by all who pass by. In Luke’s gospel, however, a crowd of people including many women accompany Jesus to the cross with weeping and lamentation. Luke 23:27. The Jewish leaders mock and deride Jesus, but the crowds merely stand by silently witnessing the crucifixion. Vs. 35. Though all of the gospels report that Jesus was crucified along with two other criminals, only Luke relates the story of the criminal who sought recognition in Jesus’ coming kingdom. He alone seems to recognize Jesus’ kingship, a subject of mockery for the Roman soldiers and the Jewish leaders. Though sympathetic, it is not at all clear that the crowds recognize Jesus as anything more than a righteous teacher suffering an undeserved fate.

Luke’s account of Jesus’ crucifixion turns our notion of kingship on its head. It is clear now that the reign of God is taking a very different form than we might have expected. Jesus is certainly not a king under any existing model of kingship. He has no army, nor royal court, no power to compel obedience. His might-and the might of God as well-consist in just this: that Jesus is able to continue loving his enemies in the face of the most virulent hatred. Just as he refused to accept his disciples’ efforts to defend him with the sword or to invoke divine power in his own defense in the Garden of Gethsemane, so now he will not rain down curses at his enemies from the cross. His only words are words of forgiveness. God will not be sucked into the vortex of retribution. That is God’s power. “For not with swords loud clashing, nor roll of stirring drums, but deeds of love and mercy the heavenly kingdom comes.” “Lead on, O King Eternal,” Lutheran Book of Worship, # 495.

What exactly did Jesus mean when he told the bandit crucified with him on the cross: “Today you will be with me in paradise?” According to the understanding of death in the Hebrew Scriptures, the end of life is the end of everything; body soul, spirit and whatever else might constitute a human person. Sheol, the abode of the dead, was not viewed as a continuation of life after death. Rather, it was a sort of universal grave yard of unknowing. In the much later apocalyptic writings like Daniel, we find a growing belief in the resurrection of the dead. Nevertheless, the dead are truly and completely dead. If they are raised to life again, it is only because God exercises his prerogative to breathe life back into the lifeless dust all flesh is destined to become.

By the dawn of the first century when Jesus’ ministry took place, Jewish beliefs about death and the afterlife were diverse and complex. The Sadducees, as we saw last week, rejected altogether the resurrection of the dead or any form of human existence after death. The Pharisees, by contrast acknowledged the resurrection of the dead. Some of them at some point also believed in a paradise for the souls of the righteous awaiting the resurrection. According to at least one commentator I have read, this post-biblical understanding of paradise was behind Jesus’ promise to the bandit crucified with him. Caird, G.B. The Gospel of Saint Luke, The pelican New Testament Commentaries (c. G.B. Caird, 1963, Penguin Books, Ltd.) p. 253.

I don’t buy it. The scriptures use a host of metaphors and images when speaking about death and resurrection (how else can you speak of such things?). It is dangerous to draw metaphysical conclusions from parabolic speech. The Greek word translated “paradise” in this passage merely means “garden.” It was employed by the Greek translation of the Old Testament scriptures to describe the Garden of Eden. As such, it was also used as a metaphor for the restored creation under the reign of God. Jesus’ promise, then, was that the crucified criminal would share in the reign of God which was breaking through even now under the sign of the cross. There is no attempt here to explicate the metaphysical implications of all this (assuming there are such).

Sunday, Novemver 17th

Twenty-Sixth Sunday after Pentecost

Malachi 4:1–2a
Psalm 98
2 Thessalonians 3:6–13
Luke 21:5–19

Prayer of the Day: O God, the protector of all who trust in you, without you nothing is strong, nothing is holy. Embrace us with your mercy, that with you as our ruler and guide, we may live through what is temporary without losing what is eternal, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.

“But the end will not follow immediately.” That is an understatement. Those words were spoken over two millennia ago and the end still is not in sight. I must confess that I get impatient waiting for the end of a lot of things. I don’t want to hear one more heartbreaking story of gun violence against school children. I don’t want to do another funeral for a suicide. I don’t want to meet anymore victims of domestic abuse. I don’t want to listen to one more hateful, bigoted angry tirade against immigrants, gay or lesbian people or somebody at the wrong end of the political spectrum-whichever end that might be. Unlike Jesus’ disciples, I am not worried by the threat of persecution. I haven’t been persecuted since middle school and the prospects for meeting persecution at this point in my life are practically nil. Neither persecution nor torture are likely to break me, but the constant abrasion of living in an angry and violent world might finally just wear me down.

I wish Jesus had more to say to me than “by your endurance you will gain your soul.” Endurance is not my strong suit, especially when my enduring commitment to something does not seem to yield any progress. So I can sympathize with the disciples when they ask Jesus when his prediction of the temple’s destruction will be fulfilled. No doubt they were convinced that the end of the temple meant the end of the age. It would surely take a disaster of cosmic proportions to level such a great building made of such fine stones. An event like the destruction of the temple would serve as a chronological landmark, a reassuring sign that history is on track and headed in the right direction, a signal that the coming of the Son of Man is just over the horizon. Jesus’ reply is anything but reassuring. Even if the disciples could know when the temple would fall, that information would not bring them any closer to knowing when “the end” will occur. Jesus warns his disciples that, in addition to the fall of the temple in Jerusalem, there will be wars, pestilence, earthquakes and famines. There will even be cosmic signs in the heavens. None of these events signal the end. Worse yet, a time of intense persecution is coming with no indication as to how long it will last. Endurance is the disciples’ only defense.

New Testament Scholarship has sometimes viewed the entire Gospel of Luke and its sequel, the Book of Acts, as a response to dashed expectations of a church that had been looking for the imminent return of Jesus in glory. The German New Testament scholar Hans Conzelmann wrote extensively on the Gospel of Luke arguing that Luke changed the emphasis in Jesus’ teaching from an expectation that the coming of the Son of Man was imminent to a focus on the redemptive presence of God’s saving work in history through the church. This, he maintained, was Luke’s answer to a theological crisis in the church occasioned by the delay of Christ’s return as expected. That would account for the emphasis in Sunday’s gospel reading on the indefinite period of testimony required of the disciples between the resurrection and Christ’s return. Conzelmann’s thinking has been quite influential in shaping New Testament scholarship generally.

Frankly, I think Conzelmann was wrong. I am not convinced that Jesus thought the end of the world or the consummation of God’s kingdom was imminent. I believe rather that Jesus understood the kingdom as having come in its fullness through his ministry and that he invited his disciples to join him in living under its jurisdiction. I also think he understood that life under the reign of God would take the form of the cross until the “coming of the Son of Man,” the timing of which is known to God alone. I am unconvinced that the church anticipated the immediate return of Christ. Though mindful that the Son of Man would come “like a thief in the night” and that watchfulness was important, I believe the church well understood that Israel waited 400 years for liberation from Egypt; wandered for 40 years in the wilderness before entering the Promised Land and spent 70 years in exile before returning home from Babylon. Though perhaps tempted by “end times” hysteria (as is our own age), the church understood from the get go that God will not be rushed. The church also understood that God can be trusted to supply her with whatever might be required to complete her journey-however long that journey might take. There was no “crisis of faith” necessitating a re-write of the church’s preaching or self-understanding.

Patience and endurance have always been central to the church’s life of faith. These virtues are learned under the yolk of oppression when no hope of liberation is in sight; when one is wandering in the wilderness without a map; or while one lives as a captive foreigner in a hostile, alien culture. These virtues might not seem so very important when the direction is clear, the way ahead is smooth and the goal is in sight. But when you are waiting for all the weapons of war to be beaten into plowshares, for a world in which each person can sit under his or her own fig tree living without fear, for the blind to see, the lame to walk, the hungry to be fed and every tear to be wiped from every eye, for that you need a truck load of endurance. It is that for which I pray to help me wait faithfully for Jesus’ triumphal return and “live through what is temporary without losing what is eternal.”

Malachi 4:1–2a

The name Malachi means “my messenger” in Hebrew. It was most likely a pseudo name derived from chapter 3:1 and given as the author of this prophetic book by a later editor. This prophet was active sometime around 500 to 450 B.C. after the Jews returned from Exile in Babylon and rebuilt the temple in Jerusalem. His concern is for proper maintenance of the temple cult and the worship practices of his people. Malachi castigates the priests for accepting sick and defective animals in sacrifice at the temple rather than animals “without blemish” as the Levitical laws required. Malachi 1:6-14. See, e.g., Leviticus 1:3; Leviticus 1:10. He condemns the men of the community for divorcing the “wife of your youth” (perhaps in order to obtain a newer model?). Malachi 2:13-16. There is a clear connection here between unfaithfulness to Israel’s covenant with her God and the unfaithfulness of Israelite men to their wives. Both are based on covenant promises. Offering animals unfit for consumption as offerings at the temple reflects contempt for God’s covenant with Israel just as cavalierly divorcing one’s wife of many years constitutes an egregious breach of faith on the human plain. There is no separation of the sacred from the secular. All of life is bound together by covenant promises.

In chapter 3, speaking on behalf of the Lord, Malachi declares: “Behold, I send my messenger to prepare the way before me.” Malachi 3:1. But this prophecy has a double edge, for “who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears?” Malachi 3:2. Like a refiner’s fire, this messenger will purify the priesthood so that the peoples’ offerings and worship will once again be pleasing to the Lord and invoke blessing rather than judgment. Malachi 3:3-4. It is against the backdrop of these oracles that the verses from our lesson must be read. The day of judgment that consumes the wicked is also the refining fire that will perfect the people of God.

The danger here is that we might be tempted to draw the line between the righteous and the wicked prematurely. That was precisely the problem with much of the religious tradition that Jesus confronted in his ministry. Chief among the complaints against him was that he associated with “sinners.” E.g. Mark 2:15-17. We do well to remember that the line between righteousness and wickedness does not run along any international border, or between any racial, religious, ethnic or political dividing line. Rather, the line runs through each human heart which must be both judged and redeemed by the Word of the Lord.

Psalm 98

This psalm of praise is an “enthronement psalm” celebrating the lordship of Israel’s God. The people are invited to sing a “new song” to the Lord echoing a nearly identical phrase in Isaiah 42:10 which introduces a song used in celebration of God’s coming to deliver Israel from captivity in Babylon. This similarity has led some commentators to conclude that the psalm is post-exilic. That might well be the case, but it seems to me a slender reed upon which to make a definitive decision on dating. The victories of the Lord celebrated in verses 1-3 could as easily refer to events connected with the Exodus. In the absence of reference to any specific historical event, the issue of dating must remain open.

Verse 6 makes clear that the “king” whose enthronement is celebrated here is the Lord. This, too, may well indicate a post-exilic time in which any king there might be would necessarily be a gentile ruler. The psalm would then be a bold assertion that the earth is under the sole jurisdiction of the Lord rather than any emperor or king asserting authority over the nations. If, however, this psalm dates back to the monarchic period of Israel’s history, it would testify to the prophetic insistence that even Israel’s king is finally subject to the reign of God.

Verses 4-8 extend the call to praise out to the whole earth, its peoples and all the forces of nature. All the earth is invited to “make a joyful noise to the Lord” with all manner of musical instruments. Vss. 4-6. The sea is ordered to “roar,” the floods to “clap” and the hills to “sing together for joy.” What is the great act of God evoking such cosmic celebration? The answer is given in verse 3 where the psalmist announces that God “has remembered his steadfast love and faithfulness to the house of Israel.” This faithfulness has been expressed in a victory handed to Israel that is witnessed by the whole earth. Vs. 3. Furthermore, Israel will not be the only beneficiary of God’s faithfulness. For this God comes to “judge the earth” and “the world” with righteousness, establishing “equity” for all peoples. Vs. 9

Whether this psalm was written during the monarchic period of Israel’s history when she was but a small player in a violent and dangerous geopolitical neighborhood or whether it was composed following the Babylonian Exile when Israel lived as a conquered people, there was and still is a huge gap between the psalmist’s bold assertions of God’s reign and the “reality” in which the people were living. As we will see in our gospel lesson, God’s people of every age are called to live as children under God’s reign in the midst of a world where many other hostile forces assert their lordship. Faith refuses to accept the “reality” of the present world as the only one or the final one. God’s reign is the only real kingship and will endure after “crowns and thrones” have perished and after all other kingdoms have “waxed and waned.” “Onward, Christian Soldiers,” The Lutheran Hymnal, # 658.

2 Thessalonians 3:6–13

For my views generally on II Thessalonians, see my post for November 10th.  You might also want to read the summary article on enterthebible.org by Matt Skinner, Associate Professor of New Testament.

In today’s lesson Paul addresses a perennial problem for the church. What to do with slackers in the Body of Christ? It appears that there were folks in the Thessalonian church taking advantage of the church’s hospitality and charity. Perhaps the congregation practiced common ownership of goods similar to the Jerusalem church in the Book of Acts. See Acts 4:32-37. Under this “honor system” the temptation to game the system runs high. See Acts 5:1-11. Or it might be that this church had an order of widows similar to that described in Paul’s first letter to Timothy under which elderly widows with no family to care for them received sustenance from the church in return for their commitment to minister to the needs of the saints. It seems, however, that the order was becoming a dumping ground for unwanted grannies and a refuge for younger women capable of gainful employment. I Timothy 5:3-16. In any event, it is clear that the church in Thessalonica is beset by folks who are taking far more than they give.

This problem is not comparable to the frequently encountered drifters who show up at our doors with a heart wrenching problem that cash and only cash can solve. We are dealing here with members of the church who feel entitled to its benefits, but feel no responsibility to support it. They show up when someone needs to be baptized, confirmed, married or buried. You might see them on Christmas or Easter. You don’t see them at any other time, but they still think of the church as “theirs.” It is easy to share Paul’s annoyance with these slackers and I am sometimes tempted to call them out on their crass abuses of our ministry. But I never do. My reluctance is twofold. I am glad to see anyone come within the influence of the Body of Christ because I see there an opportunity to exercise hospitality and witness to the gospel. Additionally, I cannot help but feel that the church itself is partly responsible for creating this problem.

Back in the days when everyone went to church, evangelism consisted of consumer marketing. Because we assumed that everyone was looking for a church, we advertized our church as the best in town. We touted our air conditioned buildings; our youth programs; our Sunday Schools and varied activities for seniors. Even when our outreach was specifically religious, we sold our faith as a consumer good. The trouble with consumer advertizing is that it draws consumers and consumers consume. When we ask them to contribute, they balk and rightly so. They were lured into our midst with the promise of freebies. Then we go and stick an offering plate under their nose, ask them to give up an evening every month to be on a committee or spend their Saturday raking our leaves. It’s a classic bait and switch.

Jesus did not market to consumers. Even to those who sought him out, he warned them that they might be sleeping on the ground or even dying on a cross should they follow him. He had no use for people who put even their family commitments ahead of discipleship. Jesus never sought mass appeal. He avoided it like the plague. Like the United States Marines, Jesus was looking for a few good people. He wanted disciples, not members. He spent the years of his ministry working intensely with twelve people and that remained his focus even when it meant turning the crowds away. Paul’s ultimatum might sound rather severe: “Whoever will not work, let them not eat.” Vs. 10. We do well to remember that Paul is not a governmental agent denying food stamps to hungry families. He is an apostle speaking to people who are under the false impression that the church is a club designed to meet the needs of its members rather than the Body of Christ devoted to the work of preaching, reconciliation and peacemaking. For their own sake and for the sake of the church these slackers need to be called to account.

Now that we are living in a post Christian age where there no longer is a huge contingent of church shoppers out there to whom we can market church membership, we can perhaps find our way back to the good work of making disciples.

Luke 21:5–19

This section of the gospel, like apocalyptic literature generally, has been subject to all manner of end times prognostication. With the arguable exception of “great signs from heaven” in vs 11, the natural and political traumas described have been regular features of every age. Consequently, it has always been possible to employ these scriptures to convince gullible persons with short historical memories that the end has in fact drawn near. Careful reading of the text reveals, however, that Jesus’ point is precisely the opposite. Neither the destruction of the temple nor any of the geopolitical fallout signal the coming of the Son of Man. Luke is careful to point out that the cosmic signs heralding that final chapter will be impossible to miss. Luke 21:25-28.  The disciples should not imagine that the ordinary traumas of war, pestilence and famine constitute signs of the end. Vss. 10-11.

What the disciples should be preparing for is an indefinite time in which they are to live as children of their Heavenly Father in a world hostile to his reign. They can expect persecution from the government, from their fellow countrymen and even from members of their own families. Vs. 12. The disciples must be prepared to give their testimony and may do so with confidence as Jesus will give them “a mouth and wisdom which none of [their] adversaries will be able to withstand or contradict.” Vs. 15.

Some New Testament scholars have practically made a career of dissecting this text and trying to figure out where the gospel writers got their material, what the material looked like before they wove it into their gospel narratives and what different meaning (if any) these supposedly independent pieces might have had in the context where they were originally composed. The fancy name for that is “redaction criticism.” In the case of this particular gospel lesson, it is commonly held that Luke relied upon Mark 13 (the “Little Apocalypse”) in composing these verses. The similarities between the two gospels at this point of intersection are striking. But there are also significant differences leading to a split of opinion over whether Luke may have relied upon other sources in addition to Mark. Marshall, I. Howard, Commentary on Luke, New International Greek Testament Commentary (c. 1978, The Paternoster Press, Ltd.) p. 755. There is also a good deal of scholarly argument over whether Mark relied upon a tract circulating during the Jewish War of 70 A.C.E.  Ibid. 761. That war ended with Rome’s conquest of Jerusalem and the destruction of the temple. It is not altogether inconceivable that such written oracles warning of the impending disaster and seeking to interpret its significance were in existence at that time or that Mark might have relied upon one of them in composing his Little Apocalypse. Yet the fact remains that no document of this kind has ever been identified. Thus, the suggestion that either Mark or Luke relied upon such a document is merely speculative. At least that is how I see it. Bottom line? Whatever may or may not have happened along the way in formation of the gospels may be of academic interest, but as far as I am concerned it is not particularly significant. I preach from the gospel as it is, not from what somebody else tells me it might have looked like in some earlier form.

Sunday, October 27th

Reformation Day

Jeremiah 31:31-34
Psalm 46
Romans 3:19-28
John 8:31-36

Prayer of the Day: Almighty God, gracious Lord, we thank you that your Holy Spirit renews the church in every age. Pour out your Holy Spirit on your faithful people. Keep them steadfast in your word, protect and comfort them in times of trial, defend them against all enemies of the gospel, and bestow on the church your saving peace, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

I don’t plan to say much about Reformation here or on Reformation Sunday. If you want some reflection on that subject, I did say a few things about it in my monthly article in the Voice of Trinity. For those of you who are not on the mailing list, you can access the article at this link. I must confess that I have never understood what the lectionary people were thinking when they selected these texts for the observance of Reformation Sunday. The connections I have tried to make every single year (because the readings never change) always seem forced and tenuous. So for now, let’s put Reformation to one side.  

What I found most striking in my reading of the lessons this time around is Jeremiah’s oracle about Judah’s restoration. I am particularly struck by the promise that God will write his Torah into the hearts of his people such that they no longer need instruction, but know the Lord almost instinctively. It reminds me of Paul’s admonition to the Philippian Church to “have this mind among yourselves which is yours in Christ Jesus, who though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the likeness of a servant.” Philippians 2:5-7.

That is an appealing image. I don’t know about you, but I got more than a belly full of arrogance, pride, grasping for power and contempt these last few weeks watching our national leaders behave in ways our nursery teachers would never tolerate in their classrooms. And don’t bother to point out to me who did what first to whom or who started it. I am not interested in who was right and who was wrong. Like an exasperated school teacher, I don’t care. I only wish there were an adult somewhere up on Capital Hill to make all the spoiled little kids play nice. But to be fair, the conduct of our leaders is no worse than what I often see at sporting events, traffic jams and, sadly, in some of our churches. It is a reflection of a depraved and inwardly directed heart that beats in my own chest no less than in anyone else’s. We all need to have the words of God inscribed upon our hearts. But how could such a thing possibly happen? What would it look like if it did happen?

Let me say first off that I don’t believe there are any shortcuts to sanctification, which is perhaps just a fancy name for what Jeremiah calls the inscribing of God’s words upon our hearts. Loving God above all else and loving my neighbor (who may also be my enemy) goes against the grain of my being. Taking up the cross is the last thing I choose. It will take a lot of work to chisel love into this selfish, willful and rebellious old heart.

Second, I know I cannot do this on my own. Martin Luther said it best of all: “I believe that I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ or come to him.” Small Catechism, Explanation of the Creed, Article 3. I need God’s Spirit to overcome my willfulness and teach me obedience, faithfulness and compassion. No, I cannot control the Holy Spirit, but I know where the Holy Spirit is, where the Holy Spirit works and where the Holy Spirit promises to meet me. Where the Word of God is proclaimed; where the waters of baptism flow; where the Eucharistic table is spread-that is where the Spirit is found. That is where I need to be if I expect the Spirit to transform me.

That brings me to the final point. I need the people of God. I suppose that, in theory, the Spirit of God could transform me without the help of any other human agent. But that isn’t how the Spirit has chosen to work. The Word of God is inscribed upon our hearts as we learn the hard lessons of forgiveness-both giving and receiving it. Sanctification happens as I am forced to work with, support and care for people I did not choose as friends; people who may not like me; people who I might not like either. The word of God is inscribed upon our hearts as God makes of a diverse and fractious group of individuals One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church. That is a long and difficult task. I often doubt that there is enough time left in my life to complete it. Yet though I may lack time, God is prepared to take all the time necessary to complete what he started at my baptism. I don’t see it yet. But Jeremiah assures me that “the days are surely coming.” For now, that has got to be enough.

Jeremiah 31:31-34

For a brief but excellent summary of the Book of Jeremiah see the article by Terence E. Fretheim, Elva B. Lovell Professor of Old Testament at enterthebible.org. Recall that Jeremiah prophesied immediately before and for some time after the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple by the Babylonians in 587 B.C.E. This particular oracle in Sunday’s lesson is regarded by most scholars as coming from Jeremiah’s post 587 prophesies. Jerusalem was in ruins and a substantial part of the population had been deported to Babylon (modern day Iraq). There seemed to be no future for Judah. Yet here Jeremiah, the very prophet who refused to offer Judah’s leaders even a sliver of hope for deliverance from Babylon, now speaks to the sorry remnant of the people about a new beginning. Such words could not be heard by Judah before the destruction of Jerusalem because her leaders were too intent on preserving the old covenant that had been irretrievably broken. Judah was hoping that salvation would come in the form of a Babylonian defeat that would preserve the line of David, the Holy City and the temple of Solomon. But that would not have been salvation for a nation that had so thoroughly strayed from her covenant with her God. Hope lay not in preserving Judah and her institutions, but in the new thing God would do for Israel after all these things had been taken away from her. Israel would never again be the glorious nation she was; but through the new covenant Jeremiah promises, Israel will become precisely the nation God needs.

I have said many times before that the prophet Jeremiah might have an important word for a church coming to the end of its prominence and position in western culture. A broken and fragmented church on the fringes of society unable to support the denominational missions, ministries and educational institutions that defined it in the past might not be the “church of the future” we would choose if we had a choice. But such a church might be exactly the kind of people God needs to be the Body of Christ in the world of the Twenty-First Century.

The new covenant of which Jeremiah speaks does not differ substantively from the old. The “law” which God promises to write upon the hearts of God’s people is the law delivered to Israel at Sinai. The problem is not with the law but with the people who failed to internalize it and therefore observed it only in the breech. For example, during the reign of Judah’s last king, Zedekiah, the Babylonian armies advanced and captured all but two of Judah’s fortified cities. Jeremiah 34:7. Hoping to placate God and induce the Lord to save Judah from conquest, Zedekiah persuaded the people to do away with a longstanding practice of enslaving their impoverished fellow Hebrews beyond the six year limit on servitude established under Torah (Exodus 21:2-6). See Jeremiah 34:6-10. Shortly thereafter, Hophra, Pharaoh of Egypt, marched north to attack the Babylonian forces in Palestine. Babylon was forced to raise the siege against Jerusalem and draw its troops down to repel the Egyptian forces. When it seemed as though the Babylonian threat had receded, Zedekiah revoked the decree freeing the slaves and reinstated the lawless practice of indefinite servitude. Jeremiah 34:11. Jeremiah warned Zedekiah that this blatant act of hypocrisy would not go unpunished, that the Babylonian army would return and that there would be no escape from destruction. Jeremiah 34:17-22.

As Jeremiah saw it, the kingdom of David was beyond redemption. The faithlessness of the people could not be addressed by changing or reforming Judah’s existing institutions. Change must come at the very deepest level: within the heart. Salvation is still possible for Judah, but it lies on the far side of judgment. Such restoration does not come easily. In the wilderness of exile, the people will learn once again to depend upon their God for sustenance. Only so can the Torah be written upon the hearts of God’s people.

The promise “I will be their God and they shall be my people” encapsulates at the deepest level God’s final (eschatological) intent for humanity. Vs. 33. The same refrain echoes throughout the book of the prophet Ezekiel (Ezekiel 11:20; Ezekiel 14:11; Ezekiel 36:28) and appears again in the concluding chapters of Revelation. Revelation 21:1-4. Under this new covenant, it will no longer be necessary to instruct people in Torah because Torah, the very shape of obedience to God, will be wholly internalized. If you ask me what such a community looks like, I cite once again the powerful example of the Amish community following the Nickel Mine tragedy. In extending forgiveness to the murderer of their children and offering support to his family, the Amish demonstrated to a sick, violent and gun wielding culture what the kingdom of Christ looks like. This response speaks louder than all the preachy-screechy moralistic social statements ever issued by all the rest of us more mainline, official and established churches. Here, for a brief instant, it was possible to see at work hearts upon which God’s words have been inscribed.

Psalm 46

This psalm is associated with the protestant Reformation generally and Martin Luther’s hymn, “A Mighty Fortress is our God” in particular. Structurally, the hymn is made up of three sections punctuated twice by the refrain: “The Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our refuge/fortress.” Vss 7 & 11. Each section is followed with the term “selah.” This word is found throughout the Psalms and also in the book of Habakkuk (Habakkuk 3:3; Habakkuk 3:9; Habakkuk 3:13). It is most likely an instruction to musicians or worship leaders for use in liturgical performances. The exact meaning has been debated among rabbinic scholars since the Hebrew Scriptures were translated into Greek around 270 B.C.E. This suggests that whatever function the term served had ceased even then.

In the first section the psalmist declares confidence in God’s protection in the midst of an unstable world. Earthquakes, storms and floods were terrifying events often attributed to angry deities. The psalmist does not speculate on causation here, but confidently asserts that the God of Jacob can be trusted to provide security and protection even in the midst of these frightening natural phenomena.

The psalmist turns his/her attention in the second section to the city of Jerusalem which, though not mentioned by name, can hardly be any other than the “city of God,” “the holy habitation of the Most High.” Vs. 4. The “river” that makes glad the city of God might be the Gihon Spring, the main source of water for ancient Jerusalem. It was this water source that made human settlement there possible. The Gihon was used not only for drinking water, but also for irrigation of gardens in the adjacent Kidron Valley which, in turn, was a source of food for the city. Of course, the prophet Ezekiel relates a vision in which a miraculous river flows out of the restored temple in Jerusalem to give life to desert areas in Palestine. Ezekiel 47:1-14.  Similarly, John of Patmos describes “a river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the street of the city; also, on either side of the river, the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, yielding its fruit each month; and the leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations.” Revelation 22: 1-2. God’s presence in the midst of the city recalls the promise of Jeremiah that “I will be their God and they will be my people.” Jeremiah 31:33.

As a relatively small nation existing in a violent and dangerous geopolitical neighborhood, Israel was no stranger to “raging” nations and unstable kingdoms. Vs. 6. But the psalmist will not be rattled by these dangers. S/he knows that the Holy City is under the protection of the Holy One of Israel. It is not the nations or their rulers who determine the course of history. The God of Jacob is the one whose voice “melts” the earth. So Isaiah would try in vain to convince King Ahaz to be still and wait for God’s salvation from his enemies rather than allying himself with the empire of Assyria-which would be his nation’s undoing. Isaiah 7:1-8:8.

In the third section, the focus is upon the geopolitical scene. The Lord causes wars to cease. The God of Israel is no friend of war. To the contrary, “he makes wars to cease to the end of the earth.” Vs.  9. Moreover, he destroys the weapons of war. He does not call upon Israel to deal violently with the nations of the earth. The psalmist assures us that God can handle that job without us. God says instead, “Be still and know that I am God.” Vs. 10. When confronted with violent enemies (as Israel frequently was), the people are called upon to put their trust in the God of Jacob who is the one and only reliable refuge. In a culture indoctrinated with the belief that “the only way to stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun,” the contrary witness of this ancient psalm is critical.

Romans 3:19-28

Paul’s letter to the Romans is the only one in which he makes a sustained theological argument from start to finish. For that reason alone, it is impossible to interpret any single passage in isolation from the whole work. As I have said in prior posts, I believe that Paul’s primary concern is expressed in Romans 9-11. In that section, Paul discusses the destiny of Israel in God’s saving work through Jesus Christ. It is not Paul’s intent to discredit his people or their faith. Rather, he is making the argument that through Jesus the covenant promises formerly extended exclusively to Israel are now offered to the gentiles as well. Though some in Israel (most as it ultimately turned out) do not accept Jesus as messiah, it does not follow that God has rejected Israel. “For the gifts and the call of God are irrevocable.” Romans 11:29. Paul points out that Israel’s rejection of Jesus as Messiah has occasioned the inclusion of the gentiles into the covenant promises. “A hardening,” says Paul, “has come over part of Israel until the full number of the gentiles come in.” Romans 11:25. I must confess that I don’t quite understand how Israel’s rejection of Jesus as messiah makes it any easier for the gentiles to believe. Nevertheless, Paul sees some connection here and, in any event, Israel’s salvation (which is assured) is inextricably bound up with the salvation of the gentiles. According to Paul, Israel and the church are both essential players in God’s redemptive purpose for creation.

With all of this in mind, let’s turn to our lesson for Sunday. Paul points out that “the law” speaks to those under the law so that every mouth will be stopped and the whole world held accountable to God. Vs. 19. Here it is essential to distinguish between “Torah” and “law” as Paul uses it. Torah was always understood and accepted by Israel as a gift. The commandments, even those governing the smallest details of dietary and hygienic practice, were not intended to be oppressive and controlling. They were designed to make every aspect of living, however humble and mundane, a reminder of the covenant through which Israel was privileged to be joined with her God. As such, observance of Torah was a joy, not a burden.

Nevertheless, when observance of Torah is misconstrued and understood not as a gift, but rather a means or method of pleasing God or winning God’s favor, it becomes a burden. The focus is no longer on God’s grace in giving the Torah, but upon my success in keeping it. When that happens, the gift of Torah becomes the curse of “law.” Law always accuses. Think about it: no matter how well you do on the exam, isn’t it usually the case that you come away feeling that you could have done just a little better? Try as we do to be good parents, I have never met one that didn’t feel he or she failed his or her children in some respect. How can you ever be sure that you have done enough? The fear of people in Luther’s day was that God would not be satisfied with their repentance, their confession of sin and their efforts to amend their lives. In a secular culture such as ours, we might not fear eternal damnation quite so much. But we find ourselves enslaved nonetheless to our fears of social rejection and anxiety over failure to meet societal standards of beauty and success. That is why we have young girls starving themselves to death because they cannot measure up to what teen magazines tell them is beautiful. It is also why men become depressed, violent and prone to addiction during prolonged periods of unemployment-a real man earns his own living and pays his own way. We may be a good deal less religious than we were in Luther’s day, but we are no less in bondage to “law.”

Verse 21 contains one of the most critical “buts” in the Bible. “But now,” Paul says, “the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law…” So just as all are judged guilty under the law, so all are justified by God through Jesus Christ as a gift. Henceforth, being right with God is no longer a goal to be achieved through obedience to rules of one kind or another. It is a gift promised by God. Our obedience is no longer an onerous effort to win God’s favor but a thankful response to the favor God freely gives us. That is as true for Jews as it is for Gentiles as Paul will go on to point out in Romans 4. Abraham, after all, was called and responded in faith while he was still essentially a gentile, being uncircumcised and without the Law of Moses. Jews are therefore children of promise who owe their status as God’s people to God’s free election. They did not earn their covenant status through obedience to the law and therefore have no grounds to exclude the gentiles from God’s call to them through Jesus into that same covenant relationship. Importantly, Paul makes the converse argument in Romans 9-11, namely, that gentiles are in no position to judge or exclude the Jews from covenant grace, not even those who do not believe in Jesus. Their status as covenant people does not rest on their obedience or disobedience, but on God’s irrevocable call.

John 8:31-36

Our reading is part of a much larger exchange beginning at John 7:1 where Jesus declines his brothers’ invitation to accompany them to the Feast of Tabernacles in Jerusalem, but later comes on his own slipping into Jerusalem unnoticed. John 7:1-13.  In the midst of the feast, Jesus goes up to the Temple and begins teaching the people. At first, the people do not seem to recognize Jesus. They can see that he is a common person of the type usually untrained in the finer points of Torah. But there is no question that Jesus is, in fact, learned in the law and they marvel at his teaching. When it becomes clear that this strange man is none other than Jesus of Nazareth, the chief priests send officers to arrest him. But instead of bringing Jesus in and booking him, they return amazed and overawed by what they have heard. Exasperated, the chief priests ask the officers why they have not arrested Jesus as ordered. They can only reply, “No one ever spoke like this man!” John 7:46. The chief priests then vilify the officers and the crowds, cursing them for their ignorance of the law. But Nicodemus, a member of the council, cautions the chief priests against pre-judging Jesus’ case before hearing him-only to be rebuffed. (We meet Nicodemus early on in John’s gospel at chapter 3 when he comes to see Jesus under cover of darkness. John 3:1-21. We will meet Nicodemus again following Jesus’ crucifixion as he comes with Joseph of Arimathea to bury the body of Jesus. John 19:38-42).

The narrative is interrupted by the story of the woman caught in adultery, a story that probably was not originally part of John’s gospel. John 8:1-11. Then Jesus’ discourse begun at the last day of the feast picks up where it left off in John 7:37 ff. Though the opposition continues, Jesus is gaining some support. We read that as he spoke, many believed in him. John 8:30.  But success is short lived. Our reading picks up just where Jesus turns his focus upon these new believing supporters and tells them, “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.” Vss. 31-33. Clearly, this remark rubbed them the wrong way. “Just what do you mean by that? We are Abraham’s descendents and we have never been in bondage to anyone. How can you promise to set us free?” Vs. 33. Clearly, Jesus’ newfound supporters are experiencing a “senior moment.” Have they really forgotten the four hundred years their ancestors spent as slaves in Egypt? Have the forgotten the Babylonian Exile? Israel has in fact known bondage under the whip of foreign masters and beneath the tyranny of many of her own leaders. But the greatest tyrant is not Egypt or Babylonia or Rome. The greatest bondage is slavery to sin.

John speaks of sin almost exclusively in connection with each person’s response to Jesus. It is not that people are sinless before they encounter Jesus. Rather, their encounter with Jesus reveals their sin and confronts them with the choice of remaining in sin or being set free from sin. It is precisely because Jesus’ opponents both see and claim to understand him that their guilt is established. John 9:39-41.  To know and be set free by the truth is to know Jesus. This knowledge does not consist of propositions about Jesus. To know the truth about Jesus is to know Jesus-just as you know a loved one. That sort of knowledge requires the cultivation of a relationship that grows over time and, as all of us who experience friendship know, is never fully complete. We are always learning more about the people we love and think we know so well. How much more so with Jesus, whose life is the eternal life of the Father?

I believe much of our membership loss in the Lutheran Church may be a direct result of our misunderstanding of what it means to know and to teach the truth. We have modeled our Christian education programs along the lines of public schools. Sunday school involved teaching kids stories and rudimentary doctrines about Jesus. That, however, is not how Jesus taught his disciples. Rather than inviting them to come to his seminars, he called them to become fishers for people. He taught them by involving them in his ministry, sharing his meals with them and taking them with him on the road. By contrast, we confirm kids in the spring time (when graduation commencements occur) and very often figure that we have done our job. These kids have been taught the truth and when they are old enough, we can include them in the church’s ministry. Trouble is, when that time finally comes, they are already long gone. And why not? They got whatever truth they needed to get in the system. The rest is just a refresher course and who needs one of those every single week?

In sum, we have not done a very good job of teaching people who have come through our congregations that discipleship, not membership is the end point; that growing intimacy with Jesus, not just a boat load of facts about him is what discipleship is about. Perhaps the next reformation can address this shortcoming.

There! I did get around to talking about Reformation after all.

Sunday, October 13th

Twenty-First Sunday after Pentecost


2 Kings 5:1–3, 7–15c
Psalm 111
2 Timothy 2:8–15
Luke 17:11–19

Prayer of the Day: Almighty and most merciful God, your bountiful goodness fills all creation. Keep us safe from all that may hurt us, that, whole and well in body and spirit, we may with grateful hearts accomplish all that you would have us do, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.

Who are today’s lepers? Who are the people for whom no one has any sympathy? The people none of us want living in our neighborhoods? The folks whose suffering we deem just and well deserved? While it is true (and unfortunate) that many people regard illegal residents, sexual minorities or particular racial groups as unwelcome and unwanted, thankfully these groups today have their advocates and supporters. We are a long way from full equality on all these fronts, but there is at the very least a struggle going on to achieve that goal. Nobody supported lepers in the first century or advocated for their well being. No one in that age (except Jesus) would so much as touch a leper. It didn’t matter that leprosy is not highly contagious or that most of the people classified and shunned as lepers actually had benign skin diseases that were altogether harmless. Once that dreaded label attached, your life in the community was over-until a priest declared you officially cured.

I think that the closest thing to a leper we have in our society today is the registered sex offender. You might object that, unlike the sex offender, lepers did nothing evil to merit their disease or the social isolation it earned them. But that is not how leprosy was viewed in the first century. Like blindness, paralysis and other debilitating diseases, leprosy was commonly understood as a punishment for sin. So pervasive was this notion that Jesus’ disciples presumptively asked him whether a man’s blindness from birth was the result of his own sin or the sin of his parents. John 9:2. It has to be somebody’s sin, right? Jesus rejected that notion altogether. Though he does not explain where the man’s blindness came from, he does let his disciples know that human suffering is for them an opportunity to manifest the glory of God through the exercise of compassion. John 9:3 Such compassion extends to all people-even lepers.

Our feelings about sex offenders are in many ways similar to the way Jesus’ contemporaries felt about lepers. Lepers were believed to pose a serious danger to the rest of the community. They were therefore feared and kept at a distance. It was assumed that such a terrible disease could only have come about as punishment for an equally terrible sin. Ignorance and fear coupled with a lack of compassion led to branding and ostracism.  The same can be said of those folks on the registry of sexual offenders. We find their violent and exploitive acts repulsive. We see them as a threat to our communities and we regard their placement on the registry as both just and necessary. Pity is out of place.

While there is much that we don’t know about the perverse twists that surface in some individuals driving them to acts of sexual violence, a few things are clear. Violence is pervasive in our culture. The fact that nearly half the population of the United States believes that we need guns to preserve our freedom testifies to our acceptance of violence as a normal and necessary component of our lives. I don’t watch a lot of TV, but what little I have seen is enough to convince me that the portrayal of violence against women and children is becoming ever more common and increasingly graphic. The plot line from so many of these shows reinforces our societal creed: the only way to fight violence is with more violence. I don’t know whether shows like Hawaii Five O, Criminal Intent and CSI make us more violent, but they certainly demonstrate that we find violence enormously entertaining. Our civil discourse, whether in the halls of congress or in the barbershop, has degenerated into name calling, character assassination and accusation. Is it at all surprising that this tidal wave of anger and ill will infecting our common life spills over into our sexual expression as well? Maybe we hate and abhor the sexual predator so much because he reflects the beast within us all and the vortex into which it is sucking us.

Another thing we know about sexual predators: they have often been the victims of abuse themselves. No, that does not justify their acts, but it does help us understand the source of their deep seated anger and violent tendencies. It also forces us to ask ourselves whether the entire responsibility for their crimes rests with them. Is their evil not also the responsibility of the neighbors who heard the terrified cries of an abused child, but turned up the television set to drown them out figuring that it was none of their business? What about the pastors, teachers and coaches who noticed odd bruises and welts on a child but didn’t bother to investigate or inquire about them? Is there not a sense in which all of us share responsibility for the abuse such abused children ultimately commit?

It is not my purpose here to criticize the statute creating the sexual offender registry or suggest an alternative law. Clearly, the criminal justice system is in dire need of an overhaul. That issue is addressed in the ELCA’s recent statement, The Church and Criminal Justice: Hearing the Cries. But my concern here goes beyond legislation and social policy. While we might debate what society ought to do about sexual violence, there can be no question about what Jesus requires of his church. Let us be perfectly clear that sexual predators are dangerous people and the crimes they commit wreak unspeakable sorrow and pain upon their victims. Laws protecting our most vulnerable citizens from sexual violence and harassment need to be enforced scrupulously and with rigor. But disciples of Jesus, and especially those of us who claim Martin Luther as our spiritual mentor, know that laws and penalties are not enough. Beneath the most heinous of labels society places on convicted criminals there are human beings. However marred and disfigured, these people bear the image of their Creator. I might not want to touch them, but Jesus does. That leaves me no choice.

I am not sure how one reaches out to touch the lepers on the sex offender registry. That is clearly a daunting challenge for church communities desiring to create a safe space for children and persons recovering from the trauma of past abuse. Obviously, we need to keep the safety of the most vulnerable people in our communities foremost in our minds as we minister to these folks. To borrow a phrase from the little known and seldom quoted New Testament Book of Jude: “on some, have mercy with fear, hating even the garment spotted by the flesh.” Jude 23.  Despite the obvious dangers involved, I think we need to show mercy, even if tempered by fear. It seems to me that we who follow Jesus have a particular obligation towards these people so hated and ostracized by the rest of society. If we don’t touch them, who will? And if no one touches them; if they remain hated and feared outsiders; if they are never offered forgiveness and the opportunity for redemption, then their hatred and loneliness will only increase making them more violent and more dangerous than ever.

2 Kings 5:1–3, 7–15c

This is one of the most engaging stories of the Hebrew Scriptures. It comes to us from a collection of episodes in the lives of Elijah and Elisha whose prophetic ministries were directed to the Northern Kingdom of Israel. The story begins in the home of Naaman, a highly respected general and war hero in the army of Israel’s arch enemy, Syria (also known as Aram). Yet mighty and powerful as he is, Naaman cannot protect himself from disease, specifically leprosy. It should be noted that the biblical word for leprosy covered a multitude of skin diseases, not all of which were lethal or contagious. Nonetheless, they were treated as such in Israel and probably also in Syria. So the mighty Naaman is brought down not by the sword of his enemies but by a disease that likely renders him a social outcast.

It seems that something got lost in translation between the Israelite slave girl who spoke of Israel’s amazing prophet to Naaman’s wife; Naaman’s wife who then relayed this information to Naaman; Naaman’s request to his master the King of Syria for a letter of introduction to Israel’s king and the letter from Syria’s King to the King of Israel. Reading the letter from Syria, the King of Israel believes that he himself is being asked to heal Naaman’s leprosy. He knows, of course, that miracles are far above his pay grade and assumes that Syria is seeking a pretext for aggression. This whole misunderstanding nearly precipitates an international crisis. It strikes me that all of this could have been avoided if only Naaman had spoken to the slave girl himself and gotten his facts straight, but it does not appear that he did. Perhaps he felt that it was beneath the dignity of an officer and national hero to speak with “the help.”

Fortunately, Elisha hears of the looming threat of war and intercedes. He instructs the King of Israel to send Naaman to him. No doubt relieved, the King does just that. Now if Naaman was expecting a hero’s welcome, he was to be sorely disappointed. Elsha does not even come out to meet him. He sends his servant to deliver the instructions for healing: “Go and wash seven times in the Jordan.” This insult is too much for Naaman to bear. What sort of prophet sends a servant to greet a decorated war hero? What possible good can it possibly do to wallow in the muddy waters of the Jordan River? Naaman leaves in a huff, but once again, the slaves save the day. They point out to their master that nothing is to be lost in heeding the prophet’s words. Certainly, if the prophet had demanded some exorbitant fee he would gladly have paid it to be rid of his leprosy. How much more when the price is only a bath! Their sound reasoning prevails. Naaman bathes in the Jordan seven times as instructed and his skin is as healthy and fresh as a child’s. Naaman returns to Elisha with thanksgiving and declares: “Behold, I know that there is no God in all the earth but in Israel.” II Kings 5:15.

Naaman has learned a few things about this God of Israel. First, God heals the whole person. Naaman would have preferred to receive his healing without any further contact with the God of Israel. But the prophet makes clear to him that miracles are not magic. God acts through the dynamic of his word that engages the hearer, calling him or her into relationship with God’s self. Healing comes through faith active in obedience to that word. Second, Naaman learns that God’s wisdom and healing is not necessarily imparted through Kings and court prophets. Throughout this story God has used slaves to educate the mighty Naaman. One has to wonder whether that will make a difference in the way Naaman relates to his Israelite slave girl upon his return. Finally, Naaman learns humility. Bathing in the muddy Jordan, like conversing with servants, constituted a large piece of humble pie for a man accustomed to having his bathwater drawn from the pristine waters of Syria by slaves. Indeed, depending upon the time of year this story took place, Naaman might have been required to stoop or perhaps even lie down on the mucky river bottom to immerse himself. Yet that was precisely what he needed to cure the sickness he didn’t even know that he had: arrogance. If you read on in the story you will learn that Naaman specifically requested a load of dirt to take home from the land of Israel to remind him of the God he had learned to worship. Now he is only too glad for the muck he once spurned!

Psalm 111

As was the case for last week’s psalm, this psalm is an acrostic poem, meaning that each strophe begins with a new letter of the Hebrew alphabet in sequential order. It is possible that this psalm is related to Psalm 112, also an acrostic poem. Whereas the theme of Psalm 111 is the goodness and faithfulness of the Lord, Psalm 112 speaks of the blessedness of the person who fears and trusts in the Lord. Given the acrostic form, most scholars date this psalm on the later side, after the Babylonian Exile.

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

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

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

2 Timothy 2:8–15

For my views on authorship of this and the other two pastoral epistles (I Timothy and Titus), see my post on the lessons from Sunday, September 15th.

The Apostle has been encouraging Timothy “to be strong in the grace that is in Christ Jesus,” employing the images of a soldier serving his superiors faithfully and that of an athlete competing for a prize. II Timothy 2:1-7. Now he urges him to focus on the good news of Jesus and to “avoid disputing about words.” Vs. 14. In support of his encouragement, Paul cites a “sure saying” in verses 12-13 that might well be part of an early Christian hymn or creedal statement. The lack of parallelism in verses 12 and 13 is puzzling. In the prior verse, we are warned that if we deny Christ, he will deny us. Then in 13 we are told that if we are faithless, Christ nevertheless remains faithful. Though poetically inept, the sense is nevertheless coherent. Our denial of Christ before the watching world leaves Christ little choice but to deny us publically as well. Nevertheless, even though our faithless conduct results in destroying our witness to Jesus and Jesus’ opportunity to support us in that witness, such faithlessness does extinguish Christ’s faithfulness to us. God remains true to God’s promises even when we are less than faithful to promises we have made to God. As Paul points out in Romans, “the gifts and the call of God are irrevocable.” Romans 11:29.

Again, we get a sense of Paul’s concern that the gospel he has spent his life proclaiming be rightly understood and preserved for the next generation. He knows, of course, that it is not enough merely to transmit verbatim his own preaching. The word of truth must be “rightly handl[ed]” vs. 15. Timothy will confront new challenges that are impossible for his mentor to anticipate and so provide advice. He must therefore rely upon Timothy to speak the gospel in fresh and compelling ways that nevertheless preserve its integrity. As argued in last week’s post, this is a challenge for the church in every generation.

Luke 17:11–19

The thankful leper in our gospel lesson suffers from a double whammy. Not only is he a leper, but he is also a hated Samaritan. (For background on the Samaritans, see my post from Sunday, July 14th.)  Jesus is on the way to Jerusalem-a fact that previously alienated him from the Samaritan population. Luke 9:51-56. Consequently, this Samaritan’s willingness to approach Jesus was already an act of faith. Jesus commanded the ten lepers seeking his aid to “show themselves to the priest” who alone had the authority to declare them clean. Vs. 14. Upon receiving this declaration, they would presumably have presented the appropriate offering for their healing. Leviticus 14:1-20 The Samaritan, however, had no priest to whom he could go, unless we assume that he was headed for the Samaritan place of worship at Mt. Gerizim. It is unlikely that a priest of the Jewish temple establishment would have examined a Samaritan, much less declared him clean. Thus, once cleansed, he had nowhere to go in order to give thanks but to Jesus. That was also true for the nine presumably Jewish lepers, but they failed to recognize the one to whom thanks is due.

This text is used routinely at Thanksgiving worship to emphasize the need to give thanks; however, there is no indication that the nine lepers were unthankful. They may well have made an offering of thanksgiving at the Temple in Jerusalem. Their failure was thus not a lack of thankfulness, but a lack of perception. They were going to the wrong place to give thanks.

There is an obvious parallel between this text and our lesson from II Kings. Like the Samaritan, Naaman was both a leper and a foreigner hostile to Israel. Both men experienced the salvation of Israel’s God and became worshipers. Thus, God’s call and salvation extend beyond Israel to all peoples. Jesus made this very same point in his sermon at the synagogue of Nazareth in the initial chapters of Luke’s gospel. See Luke 4:16-30. This story therefore prefigures the mission to the gentiles Luke will take up more fully in the Book of Acts.

Sunday, September 8th

Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Deuteronomy 30:15–20
Psalm 1
Philemon 1:1–21
Luke 14:25–33

Prayer of the Day: Direct us, O Lord God, in all our doings with your continual help, that in all our works, begun, continued, and ended in you, we may glorify your holy name; and finally, by your mercy, bring us to everlasting life, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.

I was one of the many students at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota to have been under the instruction of Professor Sheldon Tostengard. Professor Tostengard taught “homiletics” which is a fancy theological term for preaching. He took the task of preaching seriously and had very little patience for anyone who didn’t. Professor Tostengard never tired of reminding us that preaching should proclaim the biblical text-good, bad or ugly. “Never apologize for the Bible,” he used to tell us. “You didn’t write it. It isn’t your job to edit it, soften it or protect people from it. Your job is to say it and let the chips fall where they will.” Nothing made Professor Tostengard more livid than efforts to “domesticate” Jesus. “Don’t you dare ever preach a sermon in this class about what Jesus really meant,” he used to tell us. “Jesus meant what Jesus said. If you don’t have the stomach for it, then get out of the pulpit and make way for someone who does!”

I wish Professor Tostengard were still among the quick, because I would love to know how he would have handled this Sunday’s gospel. Jesus tells us that no one who does not “hate” parents, spouse and children can follow after him. That is mighty hard to stomach. I could deal with being told that I must love God above all other loves-though that is no small feat either. But does discipleship entail hating the people nearest and dearest to you? I consulted the Greek text of the New Testament and my lexicon in hopes of finding a loophole. The word Luke uses for “hate” is the Greek word “miseo” from which we get our word “misanthropic” meaning “hatred of humanity.” Clearly, there is no kinder, gentler meaning for Jesus’ words that somehow got lost in translation. So what do we make of what Jesus is telling us?

As Professor Tostengard is no longer around to be consulted, I sought help from Augustine, Bishop of Hippo. Yes, he is dead too, but he left behind a treasure trove of his theological reflections. As I have said many times before, I don’t believe the church has seen a teacher and preacher as gifted as St. Augustine. For Augustine, the greatest evil was not hatred. Hatred is only the symptom of a deeper problem, namely, disordered love. Human love is designed to bring about human happiness through guiding the self to love its Creator. Love for non-divine, creaturely things is also appropriate, but “In all such things, let my soul praise You, O God, Creator of all things, but let it not cleave too close in love to them through the senses of the body. For they go their way and are no more; and they rend the soul with desires that can destroy it, for it longs to be one with the things it loves and to repose in them. But in them is no place of repose, because they do not abide.” Confessions of St. Augustine, Book 4, Chapter 10, Paragraph 15. Unless love is firmly grounded in the Creator, it latches on to its fellow creatures. Ultimately, these creatures cannot satisfy the restless heart that can find peace only in God. Confessions of St. Augustine, Book 1, Chapter 1, Paragraph 1.

The problem here is idolatry or what St. Paul calls worshiping the creature in place of the Creator. Romans 1:25. Such misdirected love turns into hate when our idol, the object of our love, cannot meet the demands of godhood we place on it. The woman of my dreams turns out to be a human being with flaws, shortcomings and needs of her own. She can never live up to my romance novel fantasies. When that becomes evident I feel hurt, disappointed and perhaps even deceived. The job I thought would give me the sense of purpose, the assurance of accomplishment and the status among my peers I believed could make me happy turns out to be, well, just a job. So I start hating every day I have to show up for work. I go from idol to idol seeking the peace only God can give me. When the idol inevitably disappoints me, I angrily kick it off its pedestal and look for another. Even love that is directed toward the Creator can be idolatrous. Worship designed to meet my own needs rather than to glorify God, prayer that seeks to manipulate God into doing my will instead of conforming my will to God’s and preaching about God that uses religious language to further a thinly veiled political agenda are all examples of idolatry. The idolater seeks to have God on his or her own terms rather than living life on God’s terms. When it becomes clear that God cannot be possessed and controlled, he or she becomes angry and disappointed with God as well.

Hatred, then, is quite simply our natural response to seeing through an idol. We hate the idol because it is not the god we thought it was. Augustine would not be at all surprised to learn of our epidemic of spouse and child abuse, skyrocketing rates of debilitating depression and ever increasing incidents of teen suicide. After all, what can you expect when you worship the creature instead of the Creator? What can you expect when you push God to the margins of family life, somewhere down on the order of priorities below band practice, Disney World, the Sunday Times and thousands of other diversions? When hearts created to love God fall in love with something less than God, they are bound to get broken.

Finally, after having been disappointed by a long line of idols, each of which has failed to give the idolater the peace s/he seeks, the idolater begins hating life itself. That might sound like a hopeless place to be, but it is precisely there, where all the idols have failed us and all hope for salvation from them has faded, that Jesus meets us. Once we discover that we have been “looking for love in all the wrong places,” we are finally ready to discover it in the right place. Hating the life of misdirected love and misplaced hope is the first step toward new life where love is properly grounded first and foremost in the Creator. That is the first step toward learning to love the world, its creatures and our families rightly; not as gods, but as fellow creatures and gifts of the Creator.

So as hard and offensive as Jesus’ words from our gospel lessen sound to us, I believe they are precisely the words we most need to hear. We need to see the destructiveness of our selfish and misdirected love and hate what it is doing to us. We need to be reminded that Jesus will not settle for second place in our lives, and that when we relegate him to some lower priority we are only hurting ourselves as well as the ones we most love. If we are ever going to love our families, our communities, our nation and the world in a proper and life giving way, we need to learn daily to take up the cross and follow Jesus.

Deuteronomy 30:15–20

The Book of Deuteronomy places us with Moses and the people of Israel at the frontiers of the promised land of Canaan. Moses’ career is drawing to a close. He will not enter with Israel into Canaan. Instead, the torch of leadership will pass to Joshua. So we are to understand that Moses is giving to Israel his final instructions. That the composition of this book likely took place in the latter years of the Davidic monarchy with additions during and after the Babylonian Exile only serves to illustrate how the stark choice between “life and good, death and evil” is ever before God’s people. In every age, in every individual life, at each moment God urges us to “choose life.”

That injunction to “choose life” is loaded with many political overtones. The phrase “culture of life” was popularized by Pope John Paul II. As used by the Pope, it describes a societal existence based upon the theological premise that human life at all stages from conception through natural death is sacred. Social conservatives in the United States, citing the Pope as their ally, frequently invoke his teachings on the “culture of life” in their opposition to abortion, destruction of human embryonic stem cells and contraception. I cannot help but notice, however, their roaring silence when it comes to the Pope’s opposition to capital punishment, his criticisms of free market capitalism and his repeated calls for governments to come to the aid of the poor. I guess that for these social conservatives, the culture of life extends only from conception to birth. After that, you are on your own.

In reading and interpreting this text, the first question to ask is: who is being addressed? Without doubt, Moses is speaking to Israel as God’s covenant partner. We can also say that he is addressing the church, but only because we gentiles “who once were far off have been brought near in the blood of Christ.” Ephesians 2:13. Can we use this text, however, as a platform for promoting a “culture of life” in the United States? Is that an appropriate use of the book of Deuteronomy? If you have been following me more or less regularly, you know that my answer is “no.” The biblical injunction to choose life arises out of the covenant relationship between Israel and her God. The covenant gives shape to God’s call for Israel to be a unique people in the midst of the nations. It is precisely for this reason that Israel is commanded to ensure that there are no poor in her midst, that the orphan, widow and resident alien are treated with justice and compassion. Israel is to be a light to the nations and a witness to God’s intent for creation. Apart from Israel’s election and her covenant with God, the command to choose life is a pale, insipid and vacuous moral indicative waiting to be filled with practically anyone’s political agenda.

Despite idolatrous claims of American exceptionalism, the United States is not God’s chosen people and there is no covenant between God and the United States. For that reason one cannot apply the terms of Israel’s covenant with Yahweh to American society. That would be very much like trying to enforce a contract against a person who never signed it. The application of covenant obligations can be made only against the people of Israel with whom the covenant was made and the people of God brought into that covenant by baptism into Jesus Christ. We are the ones God calls upon to “choose life.”

The implication is clear. Whether you are advocating for tougher legal restrictions on abortion or food assistance for poor children in the United States, you cannot do so from the platform of Deuteronomy or any other covenantal scripture. Or I should say you cannot do that unless you are convinced that somewhere along the line God made the United States a party to Yahweh’s covenant with Israel. The only place where these covenant obligations (and the promises which are even more numerous) can be given effect is within the covenant communities of Israel and the church.

Mark Twain is credited with saying, “To be good is noble. To teach someone else to be good is more noble still-and a lot less trouble.” I believe the church goes far astray when, instead of internalizing the scriptures, we use them as a platform for lecturing the rest of the world on “culture of life,” justice, peace and other abstract nouns. What if instead of issuing a never ending stream of preachy screechy social statements in which we wag our moralistic fingers at society at large, we turned our criticism inward? What if the new bishop of the ELCA issued a call to all of our congregations to ensure that all members of our churches receive adequate medical insurance coverage? What if instead of merely joining the chorus of voices calling for stiffer gun legislation, our bishop were to call upon members of all ELCA congregations to dispose of their fire arms-or at least those designed for human combat? I believe that the best way for the church to “choose life” would be for the church to become “a culture of life.” Let’s be the change we want to see in the rest of the world.

Psalm 1

Scholars disagree as to whether or not this psalm was specifically composed as an introduction to the Psalter. In either case, it serves that purpose well. Teachings such as the blessedness of the godly life, the futility of wickedness, the faithfulness of God to all who trust in him and the joy of meditating on the scriptures reflected in the first Psalm find further expression and amplification throughout the rest of the Psalter. This psalm is classified as a “wisdom psalm” and as such makes the bold assertion that both righteousness and wickedness find their proper reward within the parameters of a human lifetime. The assertion is as problematic as it is bold and requires numerous qualifications, explanations and, above all, faith in the goodness of God when God seems altogether absent from the scene. For now, though, you stand at the beginning “with a faith to suit you well.” “Borning Cry,” Evangelical Lutheran Worship, # 732. As life becomes more complex, nuanced and layered, so will God’s faithful presence in the next one hundred forty-nine psalms.

Beatitude begins with answering God’s call to come out from among the wicked. The call to Abram in Genesis 12:1-3 is echoed in this opening verse of Psalm 1. The implication, then, is that Israel’s call to be separate from the nations is precisely for the purpose of being a light to the nations. Rather than taking her cues from the wicked, the righteous person’s delight is in the Torah. Meditation on the covenant guides her life course and, as a result, she is firmly grounded and well cared for as a tree planted next to a river. Rooted as it is near a perpetual source of water, this tree symbolizing the righteous person is unaffected by drought.

By contrast, the wicked are characterized as “chaff,” empty husks that are blown away by the wind in the threshing process. They are of no value and their works have no permanence. They cannot stand “in the judgment.” Though the original author of the psalm may only have understood “judgment” in a purely temporal, “this worldly” sense, later Judaism and the early church began to see in this assertion a reference to God’s final judgment. Though God is always judging, purifying and sanctifying “the congregation of the righteous” (vs. 5), there must finally be a day when that congregation is fully cleansed from all wickedness. That day will come, however, in God’s own good time. For now, the righteous must be content to live among if not in the counsel of the wicked. As Jesus points out, one ought not to become impatient and exercise judgment before the appointed day. Matthew 13:24-30.

Philemon 1:1–21

This brief letter from St. Paul to a disciple of Jesus named Philemon is a fascinating window into the life of the New Testament church. It was evidently written when Paul was imprisoned. Though some scholars have suggested that Paul was writing from Rome, it is also possible that the letter was composed while Paul was imprisoned at Ephesus. Philemon was a convert of Paul and the leader of a house church in Colossae. Evidently, Philemon’s slave, Onesimus escaped from him and made his way to where Paul was imprisoned. There he became a companion and helper to the apostle during his imprisonment. At some point, Onesimus also became a disciple of Jesus, though whether he was such when he deserted Philemon or received baptism under the influence of Paul is not altogether clear. In any event, Paul is sending Onesimus back to his master, Philemon, with the letter bearing his name.

In the pre-Civil War south this letter was invoked to defend the institution of slavery. After all, Paul does not say anything critical about slavery in his letter. Moreover, he returns Onesimus to his master and even acknowledges his master’s right of ownership. From this we conclude that slavery is not evil per se and that a slave owner’s rights over his slave should be honored. Paul has come under a good deal of modern criticism on that score. Should not Paul have championed the human rights of Onesimus rather than honoring the property rights of Philemon? For the reasons below, I would reject this anachronistic argument.

First, it is important to understand that slavery in antiquity, though a lamentable condition, was far different from the slavery that existed in the United States in the nineteenth century. Slavery in the first century Roman Empire was not race based. Racial and ethnic groups were not singled out as inferior or “natural slaves” as was the case for African Americans. If you were a slave in the Roman Empire, it was likely because your parents sold you to satisfy a debt or you were on the losing side of some military conflict. Though few and far between, there were opportunities for slaves to win their freedom and achieve high office in the Roman bureaucracy as the philosopher, Seneca attests. Seneca the Younger, Letter 47. It is impossible to imagine anything like that ever happening in the pre-Civil War south. Thus, there can be no meaningful comparison between slavery in antiquity and that which existed in the southern states prior to the Civil War.

Second, Paul had no interest in creating a more just society. He was concerned only with witnessing faithfully to the new creation of which the resurrected Body of Christ was the first fruits. Anyone who asserts that Paul’s returning Onesimus to his master constituted recognition of Philemon’s rights as a slaveholder would do well to read carefully the rest of Paul’s writings. This is not a matter Philemon’s rights, but the healing of Christ’s Body. Whatever rights may be involved here is irrelevant. The governing reality is that Onesimus and Philemon are now brothers in Christ Jesus and must be reconciled as such. Moreover, Paul makes clear that henceforth they are to live as brothers, regardless of their legal status in the outside world. The Body of Christ is to be a microcosm of God’s new creation in the midst of the old. Paul was more interested in witnessing to the new creation than patching up the old one.

Luke 14:25–33

As indicated in my opening remarks, this is a tough text. Jesus insists that whoever would come after him must “hate” his or her family members. In an effort to soften the effect of this saying, one commentator suggests that the Semitic understanding of this Greek word which would be “to love less” is intended. Marshall, Howard I., Commentary on Luke, New International Greek Testament Commentary, (c. 1978 Paternoster Press, Ltd.) p. 592. Nice try Howard, but as Luke has proved himself quite fluent in literary Greek and shows no inclination to favor Semitic meanings, I don’t find that line of argument persuasive. I think we need to take Jesus at his disturbing word here. For my take on that, see the introductory remarks.

The parables about the unfinished tower and the king outflanked by his enemy reinforce the theme we have seen since Jesus set his face to go to Jerusalem in Luke 9:51. Discipleship is a costly business and is not to be undertaken lightly. Just as you would not begin building a tower unless you were sure you had the resources to finish it or embark upon a military campaign without the troops and munitions required to prevail, so one should not come after Jesus unless s/he is prepared to pay the price. That price is the cross. Understand that we are to take this literally. As John Howard Yoder would remind us: “The cross of Calvary was not a difficult family situation, not a frustration of visions of personal fulfillment, a crushing debt or a nagging in-law; it was the political, legally to be expected result of a moral clash with the powers ruling his society.” Yoder, John Howard, The Politics of Jesus, (c 1972 William B. Eerdmans Co.).  Thus, to follow Jesus is to enter into the struggle upon which he embarked when he set his face to go to Jerusalem. It is becoming evident to the disciples and perhaps the crowd as well that this encounter at Jerusalem may end in Jesus’ death. What they cannot yet anticipate is the “Exodus” Jesus will accomplish there. They cannot yet understand the “necessity” of Jesus’ suffering dictated by his faithfulness to his heavenly Father and his determination save his people. That will become clear only after Jesus is raised and “opens their minds” to understand the scriptures. Luke 24:45.

“Whoever of you does not renounce all that s/he has cannot be my disciple.” Vs. 33. By now we should know better than to dismiss this declaration as hyperbole or attempt to spiritualize it. Jesus means what Jesus says. To receive the gift of the kingdom, you need empty hands. Harkening back to our friend Augustine, not until the whole heart is given to God with all other loves being renounced can these lesser loves be received and loved properly.

Sunday, June 9th

Third Sunday after Pentecost

1 Kings 17:17–24
Psalm 30
Galatians 1:11–24
Luke 7:11–17

Prayer of the Day: Compassionate God, you have assured the human family of eternal life through Jesus Christ. Deliver us from the death of sin, and raise us to new life in your Son, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.

The casket floats above the crowd of wailing mourners as the funeral procession wends its way through the village and out onto the dusty road leading to the cemetery. This could be a scene from modern day Palestine where the death of young men leaving behind widowed wives and grieving mothers is all too common. It could also be a scene from a funeral on the south side of Chicago which has seen a spike in violence among and between young men. We don’t know whether the young man in our gospel lesson died a violent death. It is altogether possible that he did. Palestine in the first century was a violent land filled with bandits, insurrectionists and soldiers of Herod Antipas who were little better than murderous thugs. One had only to be at the wrong place at the wrong time.

Of course, there were plenty of other ways for young men to die in first century Palestine. Building of silos, storehouses and homes was dangerous work. There was no OSHA in those days. A broken bone or a deep cut as frequently as not led to subsequent infection and death. The vast majority of the population was chronically malnourished and thus vulnerable to all manner of diseases and disabilities. So it is also quite possible that the widow’s son in this week’s lesson died an unremarkable death from causes which, if not entirely natural, were common enough.

The tragic nature of the untimely death of this young man is amplified by his sole survivor, his mother. In a land that knew nothing of Social Security or Medicare or Medicaid, a woman left widowed and childless was a most pathetic figure. Her options for survival were few: migrant worker; slave-or worse. That is the circumstance into which Jesus walks. He touches the dead man’s coffin-an act that rendered him ritually unclean for the rest of the day. But what has occurred in the case of lepers and notorious sinners happens here as well. Instead of being rendered unclean by what he touches, Jesus touches uncleanness and renders it clean. The young man who was dead now lives.

The gospel lesson gives us some straight talk about death. Let’s start with the obvious. God made us mortal. That means there is a limit to life. God gave us life and God means to take it back from us in the end. We will all die and there is nothing we can do about it. Still, we face death with confidence. The One who made us from dust and returns us to dust promises to raise us up from dust once again. This is no empty promise. God has already begun to raise the dead through Jesus. So we are free to live and to die in hope.

That said, there are deaths which ought never to occur. No child should ever die from malnutrition, preventable diseases or from neglect or abuse. No young man or woman should have to die because the governments of the world cannot resolve their disputes without resort to violence. School children should not have to die because mental health treatment is inaccessible while assault weapons are as accessible as chewing gum. Millions of children should not be dying of malaria throughout the world while there are means of prevention that are easily implemented and affordable. Disciples should be no more accepting of these deaths than Jesus was toward the death of the widow’s son at Nain.

1 Kings 17:17–24

This story follows immediately upon the text from Sunday, November 11th of last year. Elijah is staying with an impoverished widow of Zarephath, a coastal town in the pagan country of Phoenicia.  He had been driven out of Israel by King Ahab who blamed Elijah for the three year draught that was devastating the whole region. This fugitive prophet had taken up residence with the widow and her son. All three of them were living off one jar of meal and a single jug of oil that had miraculously been sustaining them throughout the long years of draught. Then, tragedy strikes. The widow’s son becomes deathly ill. The widow lashes out at Elijah and, by extension, at God for bringing this evil upon her. That is not unusual. In the face of unbearable suffering and loss, people often question God’s mercy, wonder whether they are not somehow at fault for what has occurred or become angry at God. What is truly remarkable is the prophet’s response. Elijah does not scold the woman for her impiety or remind her of how good God has been to her thus far or explain to her that the death of her son is really a blessing in disguise that she will someday come to recognize. Elijah takes the woman’s complaint directly to God without any censorship, editing or pious window dressing. He turns and says, “Yea God! What did you have to go and kill this poor kid for? This lady saved my life! Can’t you give her a break?”

There is a lesson in this for all of us who deal with people in times of grief. It is not our place to defend God’s reputation or make explanations for God’s actions or seeming lack of action. After all, God would be a shabby excuse for a deity if he had to depend on us to cover for him. Our responsibility is to show compassion to the sufferer. That sometimes means entering into his or her anger and despair. There are precious few devotional aids that teach us how to pray when we are heartbroken, doubtful or just plain mad at God. That is where the Psalms come in. The psalmists know how to pray on good days and bad. They know how to praise God for every source of joy and beauty, but they also know how to let God know when they feel that God has let them down. That is exactly how Elijah prays over the widow’s son.

The son’s recovery demonstrates to the reader that Elijah’s prayer is heard and that God’s mercy extends beyond the confines of Israel to all nations where people of faith are found. But it is important not to lay too much stress on the healing. The message here is not that God grants whatever request a person makes-even such persons as Elijah. Rather, the point is that God hears and God acts. Such actions may not come as dramatically as in this story and they may not comport with our wishes. In the end, God means to take all of our lives. So the healing of the widow’s son amounts only to a brief reprieve. Death will eventually part the widow and her son. That the boy has been given back to his mother for an indefinitely longer period of time is sheer grace. As such, this miracle has the larger purpose of evoking the faith expressed in the widow’s response: “Now I know that you are a man of God, and that the word of the Lord in your mouth is truth.” Vs. 24.

Psalm 30

This is a psalm of thanksgiving for deliverance. It is impossible to determine precisely the danger or threat from which the psalmist has been delivered. It is possible that the psalmist is a warrior giving thanks for deliverance from death in battle. It is also possible that the psalmist is thanking God for recovery from illness. In either case, the psalmist is deeply thankful for God’s mercy which lasts forever and triumphs over God’s anger that is only momentary. S/he acknowledges that, prior to his/her troubles, s/he had become cocky and complacent. “As for me, I said in my prosperity, ‘I shall never be moved.’” It is perhaps this very pride and presumptiveness that led to trouble for the psalmist. Prosperity and ease can create a false sense of security and invulnerability. When all is well and everything seems stable and secure, it is easy to forget how fragile a thing life is. Just one second of inattention to the road by me or someone else can tragically alter the course of my life forever. If that tiny spot on the X-ray is what I fear, then it matters not how successful I have been, how much I have stashed away in my savings or how carefully I have planned my retirement. Suddenly, it becomes very clear just how dependent I am for life upon the God who gave it to me and who will sooner or later require it from me again.

The psalmist aims what appears to be a rather presumptuous rhetorical at God: “What profit is there in my death, if I go down to the Pit? Will the dust praise you? Will it tell of your faithfulness?” Seriously? Does this individual really believe that God needs his or her praise and testimony so much that God simply cannot afford to let him or her die? I suppose that is one way of looking at these words. Of course, there is another take on this as well. We are, after all, created to give praise to our Creator. Perhaps the psalmist is merely pointing out to God that s/he has learned his or her lesson. Meaning and security are not found in prosperity, however impressive it might be. Human fulfillment and joy cannot be found apart from faithful reliance upon God and a life of praise directed to God.

Galatians 1:11–24

As we are going to be in Paul’s Letter to the Galatians for the rest of this month and into the beginning of July, you might want to read the overview by James Boyce, Professor of New Testament and Greek at enterthebible.org. You may recall that Paul is writing to the Galatian believers out of concern that they are forsaking the good news about Jesus that he has preached and are listening instead to the message of certain Jewish Christian evangelists. These folks were arguing that Gentile Christians must be circumcised according to Jewish law. Paul insists in reply that people are justified by faith in Christ rather than by keeping the requirements of Torah.

Last week’s lesson opened with Paul’s surprise and outrage that, so soon after hearing the good news of salvation through faith in Jesus, the Galatian church is now turning to “another gospel.” This week Paul launches into an account of his upbringing within Judaism and his former hatred of the church. In part, Paul wishes to impress upon his hearers that his own Jewish credentials are as good or better than those of his opponents, but his objective is not to establish his superiority to them on that basis. He wishes rather to make it clear to the Galatians that, although he has as good a claim as anyone to Jewish ancestry and upbringing, he does base his preaching and teaching on these credentials. Instead, he basis his preaching and teaching on his encounter with the risen Christ and Christ’s commission for him to preach the good news of God’s salvation to the Gentiles. Paul also wishes to make the point that he is in fellowship with the Church at Jerusalem and has received the blessing of the rest of the apostles for his ministry.

It is important to note this twofold claim of authority. Paul is emphatic that his apostleship is grounded in his encounter with the resurrected Christ on the road to Damascus. (See Acts 9:1-30 for Luke’s version of this encounter.) But he is also careful to point out that he had gone up to Jerusalem to visit with Peter and James to receive their blessing. He also points out that the church in Judea recognized his preaching and glorified God on that account. Thus, apostolic authority, understood as the authorization to preach, teach and administer the sacraments publically, is grounded in the apostle’s conviction that s/he has been called to this work. But that alone is not sufficient to make an apostle. Apostolic authority must be recognized and conferred by the church as well. I believe that this twofold call process exists in some way, shape or form in most expressions of the church. Throughout its history, the church as striven to exercise apostolic authority in ways that encourage and stimulate creative ministry and preaching while also holding preachers and ministers accountable to the biblical witness, the ecumenical creeds and our respective confessional/teaching traditions. We have not always gotten that balance quite right, but we keep trying. Perhaps that is what it means to be a church of the Reformation?

Luke 7:11–17

This account of Jesus’ raising of the widow’s son is found only in Luke. It is naturally paired with the Elijah story in I Kings, also involving the death of a widow’s only son. Indeed, the Elijah narrative might well have been on the peoples’ (Luke’s?) mind as they exclaimed, “A great prophet has risen among us.” Vs. 16. The other comment made by the crowd to the effect that “God has [visited] his people” reflects the Benedictus in which Zechariah declares: “for he has visited and redeemed his people.” Luke 1:68. The NRSV translates the verb for “visit” as “look favorably upon.” While not inaccurate, this rendering does not reflect the sense that God is coming to or making a saving visit to Israel. I prefer the old RSV’s use of “visit.”

Nain is a tiny Galilean village approximately twenty-five miles south of Capernaum. See map. Luke reports that Jesus raised the young man near the town gate, but no evidence of a gate or wall has ever been found at the site. Either the gate was only part of a simple enclosure or the word was used figuratively, referring to the place where the road entered the houses. In either case, it would have been necessary for the funeral procession to pass out of the town as burial of the dead would not have been permitted within the town proper.

Jesus’ compassion here is not for the dead man, but for his mother. As indicated in my opening remarks, the life of a woman without a husband or children to support her would have been a bitter lot in first century Palestine. This is yet another passage in which Luke’s particular concern for the lives of women and their participation in the gospel narrative is illustrated.

Jesus touched the bier to stop the poll bearers from proceeding further. Such an act might well have been considered rude and disrespectful. It also rendered Jesus legally unclean for the balance of the day.

Jesus raises the young man by commanding him to arise. He uses similar means in raising the daughter of Jairus. Luke 8:54-56. See also the raising of Lazarus at John 11:43. This harkens back to the first chapter of Genesis where God speaks the world and all of its creatures into existence. Genesis 1:1-2:3.

Luke tells us that word of this event spread throughout Judea and all the surrounding hill country-strange given that the miracle took place at a small town in Galilee. Some scholars attribute this discrepancy to Luke’s general lack of knowledge about Palestinian geography.

Sunday, January 20th

Second Sunday after Epiphany

January 20, 2013

Isaiah 62:1-5
Psalm 36:5-10
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 no getting around it. John’s story about Jesus’ first miraculous sign is mystifying. First off, something can only be a sign if other people see it. Nobody other than Jesus, his mother, a few servants and the disciples ever even know about this sign. The couple whose marriage feast was spared, the parents of the bride who would likely have suffered extreme social embarrassment had the wine given out and the guests who would have had to endure a dry reception-none of them witnessed this “sign.” Second, the occasion seems less than fitting for Jesus’ first manifestation of power. You would think that the inbreaking of eternal life would have come about through something a little more dramatic. Giving sight to a man born blind or raising a man from death-now there is a sign of something big! But a shortage of wine at a wedding celebration? That is hardly a matter of life and death.

But a sign is more than a miracle. Jesus’ opponents witnessed several of his miracles and remained unimpressed. Most of the people who were impressed with Jesus’ miracles failed to receive them as signs of who Jesus was and what his ministry was all about. Even the disciples failed to see in the miracles the crossword direction of Jesus’ path. According to the Gospel of John, it was often not until after Jesus was raised from death that all of his puzzling parables and confusing acts finally began to fall into place.

I take some comfort in all of this because I am not one of these people who sees signs of God’s guidance and presence in every step of my life. I often experience the day I am living as the absence of God’s presence and influence. It is usually only in the rear view mirror that I recognize God’s fingerprints in my life. Often these “signs” of God’s presence are not events that seemed particularly significant at the time. As it turns out, my life has been altered most profoundly by ordinary decisions about things that didn’t seem to matter much at the time. The college class that so altered my thinking and shaped my sense of call was one I took only because I needed the credits and it fit into my fall schedule. I met the pastor who first started me on the path to parish ministry because I decided (for reasons I cannot even remember) to go to a mission fair with the youth at my church rather than to a movie with my friends. It was not until years later that I could finally see these turning points in my life for what they really were: signs of God’s presence. Perhaps it is only when we allow the light of God’s self revelation in Jesus Christ to flood into our lives that we begin to see God’s purpose and plan unfolding for us. I think that must be what the term “epiphany” means: Jesus revealing himself as the guiding star for all who look to him for salvation.

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 6th, 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 against 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 disappointed expectations. That is what comes of listening to prophets.

In many respects, this is the life of prophets in all ages. 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 so many times that they find it nearly impossible 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 6th 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 you try using a keyboard without it or 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. Sadly, it seems today that we lack the imagination, creativity and vision to function without hierarchy and our own ELCA is no exception to that rule. But don’t get me started on that.

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 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 relatively certain that he will be able to do something about it.

Rather than dwell on these imponderables, however, we should focus on what John tells us is the point: that through this act Jesus revealed his glory and his disciples believed in him. There are several subtle images of God’s reign in this story. John tells us that the six stone jars the servants filled with water, ultimately becaming wine, contained between twenty and thirty gallons. So we are talking about 120 to 180 gallons of wine. I don’t know how many people were at that wedding, but this strikes me as a lot of wine! Such an abundance of wine is associated in the Hebrew Scriptures with the joy of the final days. See, e.g., Amos 9:13-14; Hosea 14:7; Jeremiah 31:12. 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. In a world that moans about deficits, austerity and want, Jesus promises abundance for all. The specter of scarcity has no place in God’s reign of abundance. The disciples saw more in this event than a magic trick. They recognized the dawn of the messianic age; the inbreaking of abundant and eternal life. This story should be seen as “a foretaste of the feast to come.”