Posts Tagged Isaiah
Love makes room for another to be; a poem by Jalal al-Din -Rumi; and the lessons for Sunday, January 7, 2018
BAPTISM OF OUR LORD
PRAYER OF THE DAY: Holy God, creator of light and giver of goodness, your voice moves over the waters. Immerse us in your grace, and transform us by your Spirit, that we may follow after your Son, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.
In the beginning God said “let there be” and there was. That is already grace. God had no need to create anything. God was not lonely, nor did God make the universe out of boredom. God was fully sufficient in God’s self, the Father passionately loving the Son with that love that is Spirit. Yet, in another sense, creation was necessary. It was necessary because genuine love is forever looking beyond itself. By its very nature, it overflows its banks giving life to everything it touches. Thus, although God had no need for anything beyond God’s Triune self, “the three in love and hope made room within their dance.” “Come, Join the Dance of Trinity,” Leach, Richard, Evangelical Lutheran Worship, #412 (c. 2001 by Selah Publishing Co., Inc.). In creation, God generously makes room for us to be. In the person of his Son, God breaks down the walls of isolation, exclusion and rejection that manifest themselves within our human experience of brokenness. In Jesus, God makes room for the outcast, the sinner, the hungry, the poor- the very “least” by our hierarchical standards of judgment-to draw near to God’s self.
We should perhaps pause and think about what it means for love to be understood simply as “that which makes room for the other.” Love is a word used rather loosely in our nomenclature. I can as well say, “I love ice cream” as I can say “I love my wife.” But are these two “loves” even remotely similar? A lot of what passes for love is neither life giving nor liberating. Love that is possessive and controlling smothers its object with jealousy and distrust. Parental love that does not free our children to become the unique individuals they are destined to become, but seeks to channel their lives into what we deem to be in their best interests is hurtful and destructive. Love for one’s country that closes borders, restricts immigration and imposes arbitrary religious, social and cultural norms on the whole population is far from anything like true patriotism. Genuine love, as Saint Paul reminds us, is “patient…kind…and does not insist on its own way…It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.” I Corinthians 13:4-7. Love makes room for a person to be and become who he or she is-whether or not I like it, approve of it or agree with it.
Too much that passes for Christian discipleship these days has been shaped by love that seeks to constrict rather than make room for the other. The good news of Jesus Christ was never meant to be imposed as a cultural norm. For that reason, the very notion of a “Christian nation” is an oxymoron. God has no use for nation states. God neither needs nor desires defenders. God seeks witnesses to the good news that there is room in God’s heart for all people-even those who do not believe in God; even those who misunderstand God; even those who hate God; even those whose actions grieve the heart of God. Witnesses have no obligation to defend, refute or persuade. That is the work of the Holy Spirit. To love someone is to make room for them to be in God’s presence without judgment or condemnation. It is to allow the Holy Spirit all the time that is necessary to do her work in the heart of the other and, most importantly, accept the outcome.
Our gospel lesson invites us to focus on Jesus. As we are drawn into his orbit of influence, our lives are transformed. And yes, we are called upon to make room in that dance for all others we encounter. Some will join in the dance, learn its subtle steps and movements, fall into the rhythms of worship, prayer, giving and witness. Others will follow another path. There we would do well to remember Jesus’ admonition that “whoever is not against us is for us.” Mark 9:40. It is not for us to convert the world to any particular religious, moral or political vision. In truth, our understandings of these things are far too unsure, shifting and tentative to serve as an absolute norm. We are called only to make room for our neighbors-be they Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, atheist or whatever else to grow into the image of their Creator in whatever way the Spirit directs.
Here is a poem about creatively “making room” for which another name might be “hospitality.”
This, Being Human, is a Guest House.
This being human is a guest house.
Every morning is a new arrival.
A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.
Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they’re a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still, treat each guest honorably.
[S]he may be clearing you out
for some new delight.
The dark thought, the shame, the malice,
meet them at the door laughing,
and invite them in.
Be grateful for whoever comes,
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.
Jalal al-Din -Rumi
Source: Garmon, Rev. Meredith, “Radical Hospitality,” Liberal Pulpit, 2015/11/10 (trans.Coleman Barks). Jalal al-Din Rumi was one of the greatest poets of the Sufi Muslim tradition. He lived and worked during the 13th century. Rumi was already a teacher and theologian in 1244 when he encountered a wandering dervish (a Muslim ascetic) named Shams of Tabriz. Spiritually inspired by the dervish to find God in worldly experiences, he founded the Mevlani Order of the Sufi sect. Find out more about Jalal al-Din Rumi and sample more of his poetry at the Poetry Foundation website.
To reiterate what I have said previously about Genesis and the other four books of the “Pentateuch,” namely, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy, most scholars are convinced that there are at least four main literary sources for these works, each of which narrates the drama of Israel’s origins. These four sagas were woven together and edited throughout the years of the Davidic dynasty to the period following the Babylonian Exile. In chronological terms, that would stretch from about 950 B.C.E. to 500 B.C.E. The first literary tradition, known as the “Jahwist,” is the earliest source. It probably dates from the years of the Davidic Dynasty, being a product of the Southern Kingdom of Judah. Next in chronological order would be the “Elowist” source. This literary tradition tells the story of Israel from the viewpoint of the Northern Kingdom of Israel and was likely brought to Judah by refugees escaping the Assyrian conquest and annexation of that nation around 721 B.C.E. The third contributor, known as the Deuteronomist, consisting of Deuteronomy and extending through the end of II Kings, is credited with joining the Jahwist and Elowist material into a single narrative. The final literary contributors, designated the “Priestly” source, rounded out the final form of the Pentateuch as we have it today incorporating ancient liturgical traditions preserved by the Jerusalem priesthood. This final editing was done sometime during or immediately after the Babylonian Exile ending in 538 B.C.E. For further elaboration, I invite you to read the online article, Documentary Hypothesis.
Our lesson, the opening to a marvelous poetic portrayal of creation, is a product of the Priestly author chiefly responsible for editing and contributing to the final form of the Pentateuch. This editor(s)/author(s) composed during the Babylonian Exile from 587 B.C.E. to about 530 B.C.E. Throughout this period Israel lived as an ethnic minority in a culture that was hostile to her faith in the Lord of the Exodus. The people were surrounded by and immersed in the religious symbols, practices and mores of their captors, whose decisive victory over Israel called into question the validity of their faith. The temptation to become assimilated into Babylonian society was strong. Should Israel continue to worship a God that seemed to have been overcome by the deities of Babylon? If Israel’s God was God, how could this God allow his holy city and temple to be destroyed?
The Babylonian Enûma Eliš saga relates how the earth was created out of a civil war between the gods and how humans were created from the divine blood shed in that conflict for the purpose of serving the victorious gods. The gods were ruled by the chief of these divine victors, Marduk, who in turn presided over a strict hierarchy. The Babylonian empire mirrored this heavenly hierarchy on earth with the emperor standing at the top of the social order. Under him were his officers, army and patrons. At the bottom of the pyramid were slaves-barely human and at the mercy of their owners whim. The empire was the gods will done on earth as in heaven according to the Babylonian creed.
The first chapter of Genesis constitutes an alternative creation narrative reflecting a very different understanding of divinity, the cosmos and the social order. The story describes creation as the sovereign act of one God whose merciful and compassionate care ensures stability and sustenance for all creatures. There is no hint of conflict or struggle in the act of creation. Everything is brought into existence by the sovereign word of God that declares everything made to be “good.” If you were to read further, you would discover that human beings do not spring up unintended from the blood of conflict, but are specially created in God’s image. They have not been made to serve as a race of slaves, but to be fruitful, multiply and rule over the good world God has made.
Of particular significance for the Baptism of Our Lord is the interplay between the “Spirit of God moving over the waters,” the speech of God crying “Let there be,” and the result: “and there was.” It is unfortunate that the lectionary folks did not pair this reading up with John 1:1-18, our gospel for last week. There is a clear correlation between these opening words of the Hebrew Scriptures and John’s prologue to his gospel in which he recites how the Word was in the beginning with God, was God and was the means by and through whom all things were made. John 1:1-3. It is fitting, too, that Jesus should be announced by John, the one who baptizes with water. Water, Word and Spirit are interwoven throughout both these readings. Baptism brings us terrifyingly close to “the deep” where all order, coherence and consciousness are dissolved. To be blunt, baptism kills us. Yet the waters that drown and destroy also hold the potential for life. Water is critical to life and makes up a substantial piece of what we are as creatures. We cannot live without water, nor can we live comfortably with it. The Spirit, however, moves these waters toward their creative pole. The word gives the formless deep a form. So what is dissolved in the waters of baptism is called forth newly constituted.
Most commentators suggest that this psalm is an Israelite poet’s adaptation of an ancient Phoenician hymn praising Baal-Hadad, the Canaanite storm god. E.g., Gaster, T.H., “Psalm 29,” JQR 37 (1946) pp. 54ff cited by Weiser, Artur, The Psalms, The Old Testament Library (c. 1962 S.C.M. Press, Ltd.) p. 261; see also Brueggemann, Walter, The Message of the Psalms, Augsburg Old Testament Studies (c. 1984 Augsburg Publishing House) p. 142. It is also possible to maintain that the psalm is a liturgical recital of God’s appearance to Israel on Mt. Sinai. Both views might be correct. Israel frequently borrowed liturgical and literary material from its neighbors in shaping its own worship traditions. Thus, a hymn originally praising the storm god in the wake of a particularly fierce weather event might have served as a template for this psalm memorializing God’s stormy appearance on Sinai.
The psalmist unashamedly attributes to Israel’s God the awe inspiring and often destructive effects of a storm. That is a little unnerving for us moderns who are squeamish about attributing anything to God that isn’t “nice.” Indeed, this psalm is particularly problematic for those of us affected by severe storms. Are these destructive storms God’s doing? Does God send them or just allow them to occur? Does it make any difference either way? Is it anymore comforting to believe that God just fell asleep at the wheel and allowed a hurricane to happen rather than to believe that God deliberately sent one? Has the universe gotten so far out of God’s hands that God is no longer able to prevent hurricanes, earthquakes and tsunamis?
I don’t pretend to have neat answers to all these questions. But perhaps our problem is rooted in our homocentric view of things. Indeed, I would go further and suggest that the problem may be with our “me” centered approach to faith. It seems to me that a lot of our prayers are exceedingly self-centered. We pray for good weather on our vacations-even in times when our farms are desperate for rain. We pray for an economic recovery without any thought to the economic, ecological and social havoc our economy wreaks upon the world. Even our prayers for others often have a strong streak of selfishness in them. As the father of a child with a chronic medical condition, a day does not go by that I don’t pray for her healing. Yet lately I have been wondering about my motives. Am I looking for a special miracle? By what right do I get to push to the head of the line of parents with sick children to receive such special treatment? Thanks to the benefits of medical treatment afforded through insurance, my daughter is able to live a relatively normal and healthy life despite her condition. So shouldn’t any miracle go to a child without these benefits? I find that too often my prayers do not venture beyond my own needs, concerns and the small circle of people in my small world.
Perhaps this psalm gives us some perspective. The psalmist does not begin his or her prayer with a request that God stop the storm or steer it in some other direction. The psalm begins with praise, awe and reverence for God. As Jesus taught his disciples, that is where all prayer needs to begin. Recall that in both of the creation stories from Genesis, the world was created first. In the first chapter of Genesis, the earth and all its creatures were created and declared good. Then human beings were created to rule over and care for the earth. Likewise in the second chapter of Genesis: the earth was created and God planted a garden in the earth. Then God created human beings to tend and care for the garden. The message is clear. It’s not all about us. The world was not designed to be a twenty-first century playground that is so well padded and equipped with safety features that no kid could ever possibly get hurt-or have any fun either. No, the world is far more like the way playgrounds used to be-a place where you can really play. It pains me to no end that my grandchildren will probably never know the ecstasy of rocketing half way to the sky on a real swing set. Nor will they ever experience the dizzying high you could get from one of those merry-go-rounds that we used to crank up to warp speed. Our public parks have been cleansed of all such unacceptable risks. The attorneys and insurance underwriters who have taken over our lives have determined that fun is just too dangerous for kids.
But don’t get me started on that. We were talking about the psalm and the fact that we are not the center of God’s universe. As C.S. Lewis once pointed out, God is not a tame lion. God is not “safe” and neither is the world God made. The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, (c. 1950 by Estate of C.S. Lewis; pub. by Macmillan Publishing Co., Inc.) pp. 73-74. There is no room in the Bible or in real life for a wimpy, weak kneed religion that longs for a “nice” god. You can get hurt on this planet and tragically so. But for all that, the earth is a good place to be. It’s a place where you can have real fun. Beauty the likes of which you see in the ocean, in the storm and on the top of Sinai necessarily has an element of terror. The psalmist doesn’t hide in the storm shelter and plead with God not to be so scary. The psalmist praises God for this awesome display of power and rejoices in the beauty, wonder and terror of creation. This is the glorious world God made and the stage on which God acts. The psalmist doesn’t complain about its dangers. S/he prays instead that Israel will find the courage to live boldly and faithfully in this grand universe. Anybody who whines about bad weather and wishes that God had made a safer planet has never been on a real swing!
Last Sunday John pointed out to us that God’s creative word became flesh. God entered fully into the adventure of being human in a creation filled with mystery, wonder, beauty and terror. Baptism into the name of this Triune God is to join in the adventure of becoming fully and truly human.
It appears that a distinct community of John the Baptist’s disciples continued to exist well into the New Testament period. Whatever the baptism of John was all about, it surely did not include the name of Jesus. Thus, it is not surprising that, upon becoming associated with the church, these disciples of John should be baptized into Jesus Christ. Of what, then, did this new baptism consist? Much energy has been expended in speculation over how baptism might have been practiced in the early church and whether a Trinitarian formula was used or merely the name of Jesus. I am not particularly interested in those arguments. What we know is that the Trinitarian baptismal formula was around from at least the writing of Matthew’s gospel toward the end of the 1st Century. There isn’t a scrap of textual evidence to support the spurious supposition that this formula was a later addition to the text. Moreover, the church has consistently spoken of “baptism into Christ” throughout history without implying anything less than fully Trinitarian baptism. There seems to me no sound theological reason to baptize in anything less than God’s Trinitarian Name. As to the baptism of the believers in our lesson “into the name of Jesus,” I agree with St. Basil:
“Let no one be misled by the fact of the apostle’s frequently omitting the name of the Father and of the Holy Spirit when making mention of baptism, or on this account imagine that the invocation of the names is not observed. As many of you, he says, as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ; and again, as many of you as were baptized into Christ were baptized into his death. For the naming of Christ is the confession of the whole, showing forth as it does the God who gave, the Son who received, and the Spirit who is, the unction.” De Spiritu Sancto, 12:28.
I must admit that I don’t know what theological sense to make out of the chronology in this brief snippet from Acts. Preaching comes first; then comes baptism and after that the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. I don’t know how a person can receive the Word of God without the aid of the Spirit, nor do I understand how one receives the Spirit apart from the Word and baptism. But one of those things or both seems to have occurred here. Rather than trying to make theological sense out of this passage, I prefer simply to take it as a warning against becoming too dogmatic about how faith and the Holy Spirit work. As I said before, I have performed more than a few baptisms where there appeared to be little in the way of proper motivation or even openness to faith. I don’t know what the outcome will be, but that is really out of my hands. When you invoke the Holy Spirit, you are by definition placing matters in hands beyond your own. In a sense, I suppose I am hoping that what happened in this text will eventually occur for these families, namely, that the Holy Spirit will fall upon them-however belatedly.
Mark tells us less about Jesus’ baptism than any of the other gospels except for John who tells us nothing about it. Mark’s introduction to John the Baptist, though brief, is pregnant with suggestive imagery. The Baptist appears “in the wilderness.” As Commentator Morna Hooker points out, Israel’s long sojourn in the wilderness became a metaphor for her captivity in Babylon and hence associated with the idea of a new Exodus. Hooker, Morna D., The Gospel According to Saint Mark, Black’s New Testament Commentaries, (c. 1991 by Morna D. Hooker, pub. Hendrickson Publishers, Inc.) p. 36. Some of the Hebrew prophets looked back to these years spent in the wilderness on the way to the Promised Land as an ideal period. Ibid. In the wilderness, Israel had none but God to rely upon and so her relationship with God was naturally closer. See Jeremiah 2:2; Jeremiah 31:2; Hosea 2:14; Hosea 9:10; and Amos 5:25. From this outlook there developed a strong conviction that final salvation for Israel would have its beginning in the wilderness where the messiah would first appear. Cranfield, C.E.B., The Gospel According to Saint Mark, The Cambridge Greek Testament Commentary (c. 1959 by Cambridge University Press) p. 42.
Mark’s description of John is filled with images pointing to his prophetic role. His camel hair robe might suggest the “hairy mantle” associated with professional prophets in Zechariah 13:4. Mark’s description of John’s leather belt is an echo of the description of Elijah in II Kings 1:8. By this time Elijah’s role as harbinger of the messianic age was deeply ingrained in Jewish consciousness. See Malachi 4:5-6. Mark’s audience needed no further explicit citations to scripture to understand that John was to be understood, if not as Elijah himself, then surely as a prophet fulfilling Elijah’s eschatological mission. It is in this light that we must understand his declaration that “after me comes he who is mightier than I, the thong of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie.” Vs. 8. The point here is that John is merely the prophet who goes before the Lord preparing the Lord’s way.
Yet I think it far too simplistic to assume that Mark’s only or even chief purpose is to undermine the importance of John the Baptist whose community might still have been in existence competing with the church for Israel’s allegiance. John plays a critical literary/theological role in Mark’s gospel. So far from detracting from Jesus, his ministry sets the stage for Jesus’ revealing. That is where the baptism comes in. Again, I am not convinced that the early church was “embarrassed” by Jesus’ baptism under John. Whatever ecclesiastical embarrassment there might have been over this event arose much later as a result of distorted notions of what constitutes “sin,” truncated understandings of “repentance” and inadequate models of atonement that could not accommodate Jesus’ undergoing a baptism of repentance. Yet once repentance is understood as a turning toward God, something Jesus did throughout his life, there is nothing inconsistent in Jesus undergoing a baptism of repentance. In our case, repentance always means turning from sin. But that is a consequence of our turning toward God, not a precondition.
We began the church year with a reading from Isaiah in which the prophet cries out: “O that thou wouldst rend the heavens and come down…” Isaiah 64:1. In Sunday’s gospel that plaintive cry is answered. “And when [Jesus] came up out of the water, immediately he saw the heavens opened and the Spirit descending upon him like a dove; and a voice came from heaven, ‘Thou art my beloved Son; with thee I am well pleased.’” Vs. 10-11. The Greek verb translated here as “opened” (“schizo”) actually means to “rend” as does the Hebrew equivalent in the above Isaiah quote. In Jesus God has torn open the heavens allowing the Holy Spirit to flood into the world. God’s reign has been let loose. The new wine is spilling into the old wine skins and splitting them at the seams. Better buckle your seat belt and put on your crash helmet. This is going to be a wild ride!
FIRST SUNDAY OF CHRISTMAS
PRAYER OF THE DAY: Almighty God, you wonderfully created the dignity of human nature and yet more wonderfully restored it. In your mercy, let us share the divine life of the one who came to share our humanity, Jesus Christ, your Son, our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.
So you are no longer a slave but a child, and if a child then also an heir, through God. Galatians 4:7.
Three leaders of the Miss America Organization resigned on the Saturday before Christmas, two days after a report revealed purported e-mails from them and other employees disparaging Pageant contestants. Following the report, dozens of former Miss America title holders from as far back as the 1940s issued a joint call for the resignation of the organization’s leadership. “As dedicated members of communities, businesses and families, and ambassadors for the Miss America program across the country, we stand firmly against harassment, bullying and shaming — especially of women — through the use of derogatory terms meant to belittle and demean,” the statement said.
Both the statement and the subsequent string of resignations are welcome developments. The “Me too” movement denouncing sexual assault and harassment in the wake of sexual misconduct allegations against film producer and executive Harvey Weinstein has led to a much needed examination of systemic misogyny and sexism in the culture of entertainment, politics and the workplace generally. It is good to see that many of the worst bullies and predators in our midst are finally being held accountable for their crimes and misconduct. Nevertheless, the actions of these individuals are symptomatic of a cultural disease that I believe is exemplified in the Miss America Pageant itself.
The Pageant originated in 1921 as a “bathing beauty revue.” As such, it was geared toward judging women on their appearance and sexual appeal. In more recent years, the Pageant has expanded the scope of the contest to include character, intellect, accomplishments and community service as factors in evaluating contestants. Nonetheless, physical attractiveness remains a dominant feature of the Pageant and that raises many troubling issues. Female beauty and sex appeal, we must not forget, are defined by men in a culture that continues to be dominated by men. Despite our general acknowledgement of gender equality in principle, inequality is still very much the reality in many dimensions of our common life. That is hardly surprising. Less than a century ago, women were denied the opportunity to vote or hold political office in this country. In the world of my childhood, no one would have considered seriously the notion that a woman could be president of the United States. Women physicians were a rarity. The church in which I grew up taught that the ministry of word and sacrament must be reserved exclusively for men. The subordination of women to men was as natural and seemingly unchangeable as gravity.
Some of the old rules have changed, but too many attitudes unfortunately have not. After all, we elected a president who routinely calls women he doesn’t like “dogs,” “pigs” “fat” and other names I would rather not print. One of our two major political parties poured money into a herculean effort to elect to the highest legislative body in our land a man who routinely preyed on teenage girls. Women, their rights, freedoms and security are still not a high priority for a huge section of our population. In a society where women are secondary beings who exist for the benefit of men and live to support them in the “real world” of work, standards for judging their “beauty” as well as their character are invariably measured in terms of their usefulness and desirability to men. A “good woman” is a good wife and mother, someone who can satisfy the needs and wants of a man. That is the fatal flaw in the Miss America Pageant and it should not surprise us overly much to learn that the men who have dominated this event exemplify our worst cultural tendencies to objectify women.
The consequences of this objectification go far beyond the bullying and harassment of Pageant contestants. The violence done to girls and women by our cultural images of female beauty (often exaggerated to inhuman proportions with the help of airbrushing and other photogenic techniques) is incalculable. According to the Center for Change, an organization that treats eating disorders, 86% of all American women are dissatisfied with their bodies to some degree:
“Women and adolescent girls regard size, much like weight, as a definitive element of their identity. Some girls assume there is something wrong with their bodies when they cannot fit consistently into some “standard” size; others will reject a pair of jeans simply because they won’t wear a particular size. The majority of girls step on the scale to determine their self-worth; if they have lost weight, then it is a good day and they can briefly feel “okay” about themselves. If the number on the scale has increased ever so slightly, then the day is ruined and they feel worthless.” Battling our Bodies: Understanding and Overcoming Negative Body Images, Nicole Hawkins, PhD., Website for Center for Change.
These feelings of worthlessness and self-hatred often lead to self-destructive behavior, particularly among teenage girls, such as anorexia, bulimia and self-cutting. As important as it is to hold accountable men who bully, harass and sexually abuse women and girls, it is just as important that entertainment organizations, glamour publications and fashion industries be called out for shamelessly promoting ideals of female beauty based on narrowly defined and largely unattainable standards grounded more in male sexual fantasies than reality. A kinder, gentler Miss America Pageant is not the answer. Nothing short of totally dismantling the Pageant and all other societal structures that reflect and promote the false values of male privilege and female beauty will do.
In our second lesson for this Sunday, Saint Paul reminds us that we are no longer to regard ourselves as “slaves,” but as free children. Slavery was accepted as a fact of life in Paul’s world-just as subordination of women to men was uncritically accepted in my childhood years. The world of the First Century was both hierarchical and patriarchal. At the top of the pyramid stood the emperor, below him the aristocracy, then male Roman citizens, and after that, male Roman subjects. Women, slaves and aliens were at the bottom of the heap. They were considered non-persons for all practical purposes. Paul stands this pyramid on its head. Unlike the emperor, God is not a tyrant ruling over descending classes of slaves. God is a parent whose reign is for the benefit of “the least” among us.
All of this has ramifications for how we relate to one another. If we are all equally God’s children, then we are all equally sisters and brothers. Paul makes the startling declaration that in Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female.” Galatians 3:28. This is not to say that we do not retain our sexual, racial or cultural identity. Nor does it mean that the systemic injustice subordinating some to others magically disappears. It does mean, however, that within the Body of Christ there can be no claim of authority or exercise of power based on these distinctions. It also means that disciples of Jesus are called to unmask the oppressive systems of hierarchy and patriarchy for what they are-bondage to sin and obstructions to God’s gentle reign of justice and peace. We are called to be, in the words of Simeon in our gospel lesson, “a light for revelation to the nations.” Luke 2:32.
Poetry is one of the cracks through which voices too long suppressed, the voices of women, people of color, sexual minorities and the marginalized break through. One such voice is that of Carolyn Kizer, part one of whose poem appears below:
From Sappho to myself, consider the fate of women.
How unwomanly to discuss it! Like a noose or an albatross necktie
The clinical sobriquet hangs us: codpiece coveters.
Never mind these epithets; I myself have collected some honeys.
Juvenal set us apart in denouncing our vices
Which had grown, in part, from having been set apart:
Women abused their spouses, cuckolded them, even plotted
To poison them. Sensing, behind the violence of his manner—
“Think I’m crazy or drunk?”—his emotional stake in us,
As we forgive Strindberg and Nietzsche, we forgive all those
Who cannot forget us. We are hyenas. Yes, we admit it.
While men have politely debated free will, we have howled for it,
Howl still, pacing the centuries, tragedy heroines.
Some who sat quietly in the corner with their embroidery
Were Defarges, stabbing the wool with the names of their ancient
Oppressors, who ruled by the divine right of the male—
I’m impatient of interruptions! I’m aware there were millions
Of mutes for every Saint Joan or sainted Jane Austen,
Who, vague-eyed and acquiescent, worshiped God as a man.
I’m not concerned with those cabbageheads, not truly feminine
But neutered by labor. I mean real women, like you and like me.
Freed in fact, not in custom, lifted from furrow and scullery,
Not obliged, now, to be the pot for the annual chicken,
Have we begun to arrive in time? With our well-known
Respect for life because it hurts so much to come out with it;
Disdainful of “sovereignty,” “national honor;” and other abstractions;
We can say, like the ancient Chinese to successive waves of invaders,
“Relax, and let us absorb you. You can learn temperance
In a more temperate climate.” Give us just a few decades
Of grace, to encourage the fine art of acquiescence
And we might save the race. Meanwhile, observe our creative chaos,
Flux, efflorescence—whatever you care to call it!
Source: Carolyn Kizer, “Pro Femina,” Cool, Calm, and Collected: Poems 1960-2000, (c. 2001 by Carolyn Kizer. pub. by Copper Canyon Press) Carolyn Kizer (1925-2014) was born in Spokane, Washington. Kizer’s work is known for its intellectual rigor, formal mastery, and willingness to engage with thorny social realities and political issues. She earned a BA from Sarah Lawrence College in 1945 and did graduate work at both Columbia University and the University of Washington. During the mid-1950s, she studied poetry at the University of Washington. Kizer cofounded the journal Poetry Northwest, editing it from inception in 1959 until 1965. You can read the rest of this and other poems of Carolyn Kizer on the Poetry Foundation website.
The text comes to us from what scholars typically call “Trito-Isaiah” or Third Isaiah constituting chapters 56-66 in the Book of Isaiah. This section of oracles is principally the work of a prophet who ministered after the return of the Jewish exiles from Babylon, but before reconstruction of the temple in Jerusalem. In terms of dating, this time period runs from 530 B.C.E. to 510 B.C.E. Our particular lesson is a continuation of the “core” section of Third Isaiah, the beginning of which we saw in our lesson for the Third Sunday of Advent. See my post for December 17, 2017 for background information.
Having just delivered an oracle of salvation in the voice of the Lord (vss. 8-9), the prophet now breaks into a psalm of praise in his own voice. S/he declares that God has “clothed” him or her with “salvation” and “righteousness.” Vs. 61:10. To Lutherans like me, this language suggests the righteousness and salvation won for us through Jesus’ innocent suffering and death, i.e., vicarious satisfaction, substitutionary atonement, etc. But the theology of substitutionary atonement is not a good fit for this oracle (nor is it a good fit for any scriptural text, but that is a topic for another day). Here God’s salvation refers specifically to God’s gracious act of restoring the exiles to their homeland and God’s promise to exalt Israel among the nations. Because the proclamation of God’s word and the fulfilment of that word are viewed by the prophet as a single continuous act, the prophet bearing the word is clothed with the salvation and righteousness the word is destined to bring about. It is the prophet’s identification with God’s word, his or her soul’s exalting in God that clothes him or her in righteousness and salvation. Vs. 61:10. Of course, it is not only the prophet who will be so clothed. “Righteousness and praise” will spring forth before “all the nations.” Vs. 61:11. As surely as the earth brings forth vegetation, so will the word of God the prophet proclaims bring forth righteousness that will embrace the world and incite praise. Vs. 61: 11.
“For Zion’s sake I will not keep silent…” Vs. 62:1. Who is speaking here? Is this a continuation of the prophet’s discourse? Or are we now hearing the voice of the Lord? Does it matter? Most commentators believe that the words in chapter 62 are spoken in the voice of the prophet. Westermann, Claus, Isaiah 40-66, The Old Testament Library (c. 1969 by SCM Press Ltd) p. 374 citing Voltz, P., Iesaja, Leipzig, 1932. However that might be, I agree with Westermann that this sentence must be understood as a reply to the classical Hebrew lament, “How Long?” best illustrated throughout Psalm 13. “How long wilt thou forget me?” “How long wilt thou hide thyself from me?” “How long must I bear pain in my soul?” “How long shall the enemy be exalted over me?” The prophet’s/God’s response is “not much longer.”
It is important that the nations see Israel’s vindication. Vs. 62:2. The rebirth of a righteous people exalted by God makes known to the world the heart and gracious intent of God for all peoples. In much the same way, the resurrection of Jesus vindicates the community called church shaped by the Sermon on the Mount and suffering as a consequence of so living. It is not the great empires that “fret and strut” their hour upon the stage and are heard from no more that reflect God’s glory and implement God’s design. It is the people of the covenant living faithfully under the gracious reign of their God who embody God’s future for all humankind. Life within the covenant is God’s alternative way of being human.
“You shall be called by a new name, which the Lord your God will give you.” Vs. 62:2. A new name signifies a change in status. God changes Abram’s name (meaning exalted father) to Abraham (father of nations or peoples). Genesis 17:5. Jacob is re-named Israel. Genesis 32:28. The names “Forsaken” and “desolate,” often given to Israel by the prophets in their declarations of judgment, will no longer apply. Instead, the people will be called “My Delight is in her” and “Married” (as opposed to divorced or abandoned). Vs. 4 (not in our reading).
“You shall be a crown of beauty in the hand of the Lord, and a royal diadem in the hand of your God.” Vs. 3. Note well that the symbol of God’s sovereignty is a people without an army and without any sovereign status. God exercises God’s power through God’s covenant relationship with Israel. Divine sovereignty is exercised by the power of example rather than by an example of power. The prophet therefore calls into question the church’s Constantinian assumptions about the necessity of state sanctioned violence to establish and maintain order. More specifically for us Lutherans, the prophet puts the lie to our understanding of the state as God’s instrument of civil peace enabling the church to undertake its spiritual mission. As I have said many times before, pacifism is not one of many biblical themes. It is the biblical theme that finds its ultimate expression in the cross.
This psalm is one of a group (Psalms 146-150) that begins and ends with the expression of praise, “hallelujah” or “Praise YAHWEH.” It is beautifully structured. The injunctions to praise begin with the heavens, the angels, the sun, moon and starts descending to the earth and its creatures. The forces of nature, geographical features (mountains and hills) and plant life all are called to join in the choir of praise to God. All people from mighty kings, to slave girls to small children are drawn into this cosmic hymn of praise to the Creator. Finally, the call to praise is directed to “the people of Israel who are near to him.” Vs. 14. The perfect symmetry of this psalm is further illustrated by its final focus on this one particular people who, though at the narrowest end of the spectrum, are nonetheless “near” to the almighty Creator God.
Vs. 1 “Praise the Lord!” or “Halleluiah” A refrain that appears again and again throughout the psalm. The word “Yah” is a Hebrew short form for the name “Yahweh.” “Hallel” is the word for praise or singing.
Vs. 2 “all his angels” or “Kol Melachw” in Hebrew literally translated means “all his messengers.” “All his hosts” or “Cal Zaboth” likely refers to angelic beings. The similar term, “Yahweh Zaboth,” is common throughout the Old Testament and is often translated “Lord of Hosts.” It can also be translated “Lord of Armies” or “Lord of the heavenly beings.”
Vs. 3 “Cal Cochav Or” or “all you points of light.” The stars are called to give praise to God as are the sun and moon. This is reminiscent of a passage in the book of Job: “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding. Who determined its measurements—surely you know! Or who stretched the line upon it? On what were its bases sunk, or who laid its cornerstone when the morning stars sang together and all the heavenly beings shouted for joy?” Job 38:4-7.
Vs. 4 “You waters that are above the heavens.” Here we see a reference to ancient cosmology-the understanding of the earth as subsisting inside of a great bubble with the waters above held back by the sky and those beneath confined to the sea bed. Though perhaps not entirely consistent with our 21st Century understanding of the cosmos, it nevertheless displays a profound recognition that our existence is precarious and preserved only by the creative Word of the Lord holding all of the destructive forces of nature in check.
“He commanded and they were created.” Vs. 5. See Genesis 1 in which the universe is called into being by the command, “Let there be!” In verse 6 the psalmist declares that God “established them forever and ever; he fixed their bounds which cannot be passed.” There is an echo here of Yahweh’s promise to Noah: “Then Noah built an altar to the LORD, and took of every clean animal and of every clean bird, and offered burnt-offerings on the altar. And when the LORD smelt the pleasing odor, the LORD said in his heart, ‘I will never again curse the ground because of humankind, for the inclination of the human heart is evil from youth; nor will I ever again destroy every living creature as I have done. As long as the earth endures, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night, shall not cease.’” Genesis 8: 20-22.
“Ye sea monsters and all deeps” Vs. 7. In Canaanite mythology, the sea monster Tiamat was an evil symbol of chaos that reigned before creation. We can hear an echo of that in Genesis 1:2 where the pre-creation state of things is referred to as “Tohu Vabohu” or “without form and void.” In the Canaanite creation myth, Tiamat is defeated in a great battle with the sky god Maraduk. There is no “struggle” in the creation story, however. When God speaks, the waters withdraw and order is introduced into the universe. Fire, hail, snow and ice-all potentially destructive forces-were very much feared in a culture of subsistence farmers. Vs. 8. Yet even these powers serve the will of God. In verses 9-10 we are reminded of the creation account in Genesis chapter 1 where God creates each species according to its kind, including the “creeping things.”
In verses 11-12 “kings and princes of all the earth” give praise to God. This is reminiscent of the universal appeal found in Second Isaiah: “Turn to me and be saved, all the ends of the earth! For I am God, and there is no other. By myself I have sworn, from my mouth has gone forth in righteousness a word that shall not return: ‘To me every knee shall bow every tongue shall swear.’” Isaiah 45:22-23.
“He has raised up a horn for his people, praise for all his faithful, for the people of Israel who are close to him.” Vss. 13-14. The psalm comes to a climax with praise to God for what he has done for Israel. This is quite by design. Though Israel surely recognized her God as Lord of Creation, God’s saving power and loving kindness are demonstrated not chiefly in the realm of nature, but in the realm of history. It was in the Exodus that God showed Himself as the God of mercy who glories in raising up the slave and putting down the mighty. It is through God’s faithfulness to his covenant with Israel that God makes himself known as the God who keeps promises. So also in the New Testament God demonstrates that God is not merely “as good as His Word,” but that God in fact is God’s Word. See John 1:1-18.
For background information on Paul’s Letter to the Galatians, see Summary Article by James Boyce, Professor of New Testament and Greek at Luther Seminary, St. Paul, MN on enterthebible.org. Our lesson is a summarization of the main point Paul is making in this letter. Our salvation is relational. That is to say, we are redeemed not by adherence to the letter of the law, but through trusting Jesus, God’s Son through whom we have been adopted as God’s children. Paul contrasts the master/slave relationship governed by law, threat and the fear of punishment with the parent/child relationship that is grounded in parental love inspiring trust on the part of the child.
It is important to understand that Paul is not antinomian or hostile to Torah. The relationship between parent and child is not without boundaries, rules and expectations. The difference is that, as between parent and child, the rules serve the relationship. The relationship is not defined by the rules. That is enormously important because a lot of religion these days, much of it going under the name of Christianity, is more about rules than it is about our relationship with Jesus. For too many people, the Bible is essentially a rule book. The problem with that approach lies with the Bible itself. Its rules are frequently contradictory and always contextual. Nobody keeps all the rules in the Bible. So which ones do we keep? If you are going to raise up one passage out of Leviticus to condemn male homosexual conduct as “abominable,” don’t you have to say the same for people who eat lobster, also an abomination? See Leviticus 11:9-12; Leviticus 18:22. Which abominations are more abominable and why? As long as you maintain that the Bible is a rule book, you will never get past that argument.
Jesus makes clear that, while there are rules in the Bible and that these rules must be taken seriously, not all rules are equal. When asked which commandment was the greatest, Jesus replied that there are two that tower over all the rest: Love God and love your neighbor as yourself. Mark 12:28-34. If you interpret the Torah in any manner such that it detracts from love for God and compassion for your neighbor or if you construe the scriptures in ways that drive people away from God’s loving embrace, you have got it wrong. That is why I say repeatedly (and most often in vain) to people who insist that biblical provisions preclude full inclusion of GLBT persons, “Look, you can scream ‘Bible, Bible, Bible’ in my face until hell freezes over and I’m going to keep replying “Jesus, Jesus, Jesus.” Either you use (abuse) people to serve the interests of the particular law that suits your fancy, or you put the whole law to work in the service of God and your neighbor. That is the very issue Paul addresses in his Letter to the Galatians.
Luke seems to be conflating a couple of Hebrew Scriptural traditions in this lesson. The first is the rite of purification for Mary following the birth of Jesus. This requirement is spelled out in Leviticus 12. The second is the required ransom of the firstborn. Exodus 13:1-16; Exodus 34:18-20; Numbers 18:16. The offering of “a pair of turtle doves, or two young pigeons” clearly pertains to the purification. No mention is made of the five shekel fee required to redeem a first born male child. It appears, though, that Luke is far more concerned with getting Jesus into the Temple than he is with explaining whatever ritual purpose might have brought him there. Luke’s purpose appears to be that of echoing the presentation of Samuel “to the house of the Lord at Shiloh.” I Samuel 1:24. Brown, Raymond E., The Birth of the Messiah-A Commentary on the Infancy Narratives in Matthew and Luke, (c. 1977 by Raymond E. Brown, pub. Doubleday & Company) pp. 450-451. Just as the shrine at Shiloh was the backdrop for Samuel’s consecration, so the temple serves as the staging for Jesus’ initiation into God’s service.
Luke’s gospel both begins and ends in the temple. The story opens with Zechariah’s service in the temple and ends with the disciples returning to the temple “blessing God” following Jesus’ ascension. Luke 1:5-25; Luke 24:50-53. When Jesus goes MIA during a family pilgrimage to Jerusalem, he is found in the temple “about his Father’s business.” Luke 2:41-51. It may be that in drawing the implied parallel between the sanctuary at Shiloh (destroyed by the Philistines) and the temple in Jerusalem, Luke is foreshadowing the temple’s destruction by the Romans in 70 C.E. I must add that I have not found any commentary to support me on this. I may well be reading too much into the text. Nonetheless, I cannot help but believe that Luke has some literary/theological purpose in mind with all of his temple episodes.
Significantly, the main actors in this temple drama are not the priests responsible for performing the rites that allegedly drew the family to the temple in the first place. It is the prophetic voice of old Simeon that articulates Jesus’ calling. Vss. 25-35. Through revelation of some kind, Simeon has learned that he will see the Lord’s messiah before his dying day. Vs. 26. The Holy Spirit leads Simeon to the temple where his prophetic vision is fulfilled. Now he can die in peace.
Simeon’s song of blessing anchors Jesus’ mission in Israel’s longing for salvation and her hope for a renewed existence. He was, after all, “looking for the consolation of Israel” and found it in Jesus. Vs. 25. Yet Simeon’s words to the effect that God’s salvation has been prepared “in the presence of all peoples” and that the messiah is to be “a light for revelation to the gentiles” foreshadow the movement of the church in the Book of Acts beyond the scope of Israel. Vs. 31. The cross is also foreshadowed by Simeon’s warning to Mary that “a sword shall pierce through your heart also.” Vs. 35.
The other main actor in this drama is Anna, daughter of Phanuel of the tribe of Asher. “Anna” is the Greek equivalent of “Hannah,” the mother of Samuel. It appears that from the death of her husband early in their marriage, Anna has been living a life of devotion to prayer and religious observance. The suggestion that she might have belonged to a religious community of widows providing service to the temple is interesting, but lacking in evidential support of any kind. Like Simeon, she was looking for “the redemption of Jerusalem.” Vs. 38. Whereas Simeon appears to have been speaking principally to Mary, Anna speaks of the child Jesus to all who, like her, anticipate the salvation of Israel.
“Thoughts and prayers” don’t cut it; a poem by Ellery Akers; and the lessons for Sunday, December 17, 2017
THIRD SUNDAY OF ADVENT
PRAYER OF THE DAY: Stir up the wills of your faithful people, Lord God, and open our ears to the words of your prophets, that, anointed by your Spirit, we may testify to your light; through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.
“Beloved, pray for us.” I Thessalonians 5:25.
In tweets responding to “thoughts and prayers” directed to the victims of the recent church shooting in Southerland Springs, Texas by the likes of President Donald Trump, House Speaker Paul Ryan and many other political leaders, Washington Post correspondent Karen Tumulty remarked, “thoughts and prayers for people who were mowed down in a church sounds especially hollow.” Singer and song writer Rosanne Cash noted that “[the shooting victims] were in a church that was full of prayers. They need a government who will enact common sense gun laws.” Actor Michael McKean observed that “They were in church. They had the prayers shot right out of them. Maybe try something else.” I fully understand these sentiments. So does the Apostle James:
“If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,” and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that?” James 2:16.
Just as this mock benediction from the Epistle of James rings hollow to persons who are homeless and hungry, so also “thoughts and prayers” from government officials entrusted with protecting their citizens from violence come across as empty, hypocritical and impotent to citizens whose loved ones have died as a result of their willful neglect. If the Republican controlled congress loved their citizens half as much as they crave the endorsement of the gun lobby and its lavish gifts of cash to their campaigns, there would be no need for them to console the Southerland victims with empty platitudes. For more on that, see my post of October 4, 2017.
The prayers Saint Paul asks of the church in Thessalonica, are of an entirely different order. His plea for prayer comes not from some far of executive seated in a distant corner office issuing Hallmark platitudes on company stationery, but from a pastor who has labored among and prayed fervently for the people whose prayers he now seeks. This is a church immersed in “the work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness.” I Thessalonians 1:3. Paul’s prayers for this faithful church and the prayers he seeks from them grow out of their shared baptismal commitment to the reign of God. They are not a pious substitute for meaningful action, but a plea for God’s inspiration, support and strength for the work in which they are already engaged. Furthermore, Paul is not looking for prayers addressing his own personal needs. He is urging the Thessalonians to pray for his mission to the world, his ministry among his many congregations and the spread of the good news of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection. For Paul, prayer is part and parcel of the church’s struggle to live faithfully under the reign of God in a world fiercely resistant to that gentle reign. Divorced from this sacred context, prayer becomes little more than a bland expression of good intent or a laundry list of personal favors. “Thoughts and prayers” is religious short hand for “good luck.”
Of course, I don’t fault politicians or anyone else for expressing sympathy to the Southerland victims’ families. Nor do I fault them for the seeming soullessness of their well wishes. Who of us can ever find words that bring true comfort in the face of such horrendous tragedy? Sympathy, however, is not enough. Words unaccompanied by action are worse than silence. Mass shootings should not be happening (and in most other industrialized nations do not happen) with regularity. It is the job of government to protect its people from systemic violence of this kind. Expressions of sympathy from governmental leaders for victims of gun violence who have not and do not intend to take any steps to eliminate it might well be sincere, they should not be confused with genuine prayer. Moreover, such sentiments are clearly not enough. Just as “faith without works is dead,” so prayer for an outcome you are not prepared to live for, sacrifice for and, if need be, die for is just sanctimonious hot air.
Here’s a poem by Ellery Akers speaking to that fragile word that is prayer and suggesting how the answer to prayer might be closer than what we think.
The Word That Is a Prayer
One thing you know when you say it:
all over the earth people are saying it with you:
a child blurting it out as the seizures take her,
a woman reciting it on a cot in a hospital.
What if you take a cab through the Tenderloin:
at a street light, a man in a wool cap,
yarn unraveling across his face, knocks at the window;
he says, Please.
By the time you hear what he’s saying,
the light changes, the cab pulls away,
and you don’t go back, though you know
someone just prayed to you the way you pray.
Please: a word so short
it could get lost in the air
as it floats up to God like the feather it is,
knocking and knocking, and finally
falling back to earth as rain,
as pellets of ice, soaking a black branch,
collecting in drains, leaching into the ground,
and you walk in that weather every day.
Source: The Place That Inhabits Us, Sixteen Rivers Press, c. 2010 (Poem originally copyrighted by Ellery Akers, 1997). Ellery Akers is a poet, children’s writer and naturalist living in Marin County, California. She earned a BA at Harvard University and studied at San Francisco State University where she got her masters. She is the author of two poetry collections. She has been honored with the Poetry International Prize, the John Masefield Award, the Paumanok Award and Sierra magazine’s Nature Writing Award. You can learn more about Ellery Akers and sample more of her poetry at the Poetry Foundation website.
As I have noted previously, the fifty sixth chapter of the Book of Isaiah opens into what scholars agree is a third collection of prophetic oracles separate from the prophet Isaiah of the 8th Century B.C.E. (Isaiah 1-39) and Second Isaiah (Isaiah 40-55) who prophesied toward the end of the Babylonian Exile. These prophesies, comprising what is commonly called “Third Isaiah” (Isaiah 56-66), come from a period beginning shortly after the return of the exiled Jews from Babylon in 539 B.C.E., but before the rebuilding of the temple in about 515 B.C.E.
Our lesson has affinities with the “servant songs” of Second Isaiah, particularly Isaiah 50:4-11. (For more info on the “servant songs,” see my post of April 9, 2017.) These words constitute the opening declaration of a section Professor Claus Westermaan calls “the nucleus” of chapters 56-66, the third part of the Book of the Prophet Isaiah. Westermann, Claus, Isaiah 40-66, The Old Testament Library (c. 1969 by SCM Press Ltd.) p. 352. The prophet announces that s/he has been anointed to “bring good tidings to the afflicted.” Vs. 1. The term afflicted might also be translated “poor.” However one chooses to translate the term, it obviously applies to the Jews who took up Second Isaiah’s challenge to return to their homeland and rebuild the ruined city of Jerusalem. If these pilgrims were expecting this task to be an easy one, they were sorely disappointed. Upon their homecoming, they faced grinding poverty, hostility from their Samaritan and Arab neighbors and political opposition from within the Persian Empire that now dominated the Middle East. Enthusiasm for rebuilding Jerusalem and the temple waned. For some time after the arrival of the first returning exiles it appeared as though the whole project would be abandoned.
The prophet we commonly identify as “Third Isaiah” understood his calling as a continuation of his predecessor’s mission. Whereas Second Isaiah’s preaching inspired the Jews to return to their homeland, Third Isaiah encouraged them to complete the task of rebuilding it. To that end, the prophet is endowed with the Spirit of God. Vs. 1. Throughout the Hebrew Scriptures, the Spirit of the Lord is recognized as that power of God enabling human beings to do extraordinary things. See, e.g. Judges 3:10; Judges 11:29; and II Chronicles 20:14. So also, the word of God proclaimed by the prophet is more than just verbiage. The Word is the agency by which God acts and in some sense God’s self. See, e.g., Isaiah 55:10-11. By the enabling power of God’s Spirit, the prophet is sent forth to unleash the freeing power of the word that heals, liberates and releases. Vs. 1.
“The day of vengeance of our God.” Vs. 2. Though not literally incorrect, the use of the word “vengeance” is not the best choice for the Hebrew meaning. The word might better be rendered “rescue” or “restore” as the notes to the New Oxford Annotated Bible point out. The prophet maintains that it is God’s intent to erase the hierarchical power structures under which God’s people are “afflicted” and “poor.” This restorative intent is evident from the following declarations of “comfort” to all who mourn, “gladness instead of mourning,” “praise instead of a faint spirit,” rebuilding for the “ancient ruins” and repair for “devastations of many generations.” Vss. 2-5.
The makers of the lectionary have omitted verses 5-7, no doubt out of squeamishness. Here are the offensive words:
Strangers shall stand and feed your flocks,
foreigners shall till your land and dress your vines;
6 but you shall be called priests of the Lord,
you shall be named ministers of our God; you shall enjoy the wealth of the nations,
and in their riches you shall glory.
7 Because their* shame was double,
and dishonor was proclaimed as their lot,
therefore they shall possess a double portion;
everlasting joy shall be theirs.
Only God and the lectionary people themselves know what was in their peevish little minds when they took their scalpels to this text. I suspect that this lacuna was created out of respect for the sensitivities of their mainline protestant, progressive, slightly left of center, ever white and ever polite constituency. Nothing spoils the progressive mood like making foreigners into laborers in the vineyards of the chosen people. That hardly squares with our Enlightenment egalitarian ethics. But then, our Enlightenment egalitarian ethics don’t square with the Scriptures either. The Scriptures speak not of equality, but justice. As Jesus frequently noted, “the last shall be first and the first shall be last.” Matthew 19:30; Matthew 20:16; Mark 10:31. He was speaking, of course, of life under the reign of God. Even those who are last in the kingdom are still within the kingdom. That should be enough. If being the last in the kingdom is a problem for you, it’s a sure indication that you don’t yet understand the kingdom and are not yet ready for it. Why should we balk at being servants to the people of God? Why should we object to taking our place among the “least”? Isn’t that the way to true greatness in kingdom terms?
Another problem in our reading of these verses arises from our cultural disdain for labor generally and manual labor in particular. Only recently an article in the Wall Street Journal warned workers in the fast food industry that, if they continued lobby for a living wage, they would be replaced by machines. Late stage capitalism’s undervaluation of such work and its contempt for those who perform it is alien to biblical thought. Caring for livestock, plowing and planting are all essential to human well-being and proper care for the land. It is precisely the sort of work for which human beings were created. That the nations should share their wealth and contribute their labor to the restoration of Israel does not amount to exploitation anymore than did support of the Levitical priesthood by means of the tithe in ancient Israel. Just as God blessed Israel through the ministry of the Levites, so God now blesses the nations of the world through a restored Israel.
Finally, Israel’s restoration does not come about through conquest and subjugation of the nations. Rather, God’s restoration of Israel draws all the nations to the worship of God. “And all nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your rising.” Isaiah 60:3. Within the larger canonical context, Israel herself is seen as a “suffering servant” whose faithfulness unto death is a light to the nations. It is through her witness that the nations will learn how service to the God who is God, rather than striving for nationalistic dominance, leads to blessing and peace. Thus, the nations’ service to Israel does not come about through conquest and is not carried out in a hierarchical context. It is instead the faithful response of a world that finally recognizes its Creator. The intent is summed up in verse 11: “For as the earth brings forth its shoots, and as a garden causes what is sown in it to spring up, so the Lord God will cause righteousness and praise to spring forth before all the nations.” (I owe this last insight to Rev. Roy Riley, Pastor and former Bishop of the New Jersey Synod-ELCA).
Verse 10 marks a transition. Whereas the speaker in the first nine verses is the God of Israel, the prophet himself/herself begins speaking in verse 10. These last two verses of the chapter constitute a brief psalm of praise in which the prophet rejoices in the privilege of his/her calling and expresses confidence in God’s willingness and ability to bring about his redemptive purpose for all humanity. All in all, this passage delivers a powerful declaration of hope altogether fitting for the season of Advent.
This psalm is labeled a “Song of Ascents.” It shares this title with a larger group of fourteen other psalms. (Psalms 120-134). The meaning of the title has not been established beyond doubt. It is thought by a number of scholars to mean that this group of songs was composed for use in the procession of pilgrims coming to Jerusalem for high festivals. Other scholars cast doubt on this hypothesis, pointing out that most of these psalms appear to have been composed for cultic purposes unrelated to the Zion tradition.
“When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion…” Vs. 1. The reference may be to a revival experienced by Judah under the long and prosperous reign of King Uzziah (783 B.C.E. to 742 B.C.E.). It might also refer to the reign of King Josiah (640 B.C.E. to 609 B.C.E.) who, during a power vacuum resulting from the decline of the Assyrian Empire, was able to re-conquer all of the lands and territories belonging not only to Judah, but also to the former Kingdom of Israel to the north. The Psalmist may also be alluding to the decree of Cyrus the Great in 538 B.C.E. allowing the Jews exiled in Babylon to return to their homeland and rebuild the temple. In any event, the psalmist is reflecting on a significant act of God’s salvation experienced at some point in Israel’s history. Obviously, this saving event is in the past. Verses 4-6 make it clear that Israel’s present situation is bleak and in need of restoration.
“…we were like those who dream. Then our mouth was filled with laughter, and our tongue with shouts of joy…” Vss. 1-2. Extremely good news does seem to have a dream like quality about it. So also one can become light headed from laughter. Perhaps that is what the psalmist had in mind. Of course, dreams frequently have a prophetic dimension the in the scriptures, i.e. Joseph (both the patriarch of Genesis and the husband of Mary in Matthew’s gospel). The Hebrew word pronounced “goyim” is used for “the nations” in verse 2. Though the nations were considered outside of God’s covenant with Israel, what God accomplished for Israel was intended not merely for Israel’s own benefit, but as a testimony to the nations of God’s goodness and power.
“Negeb,” in verse 4 means literally “a dry land.” The reference is to a triangle of 12,500 square kilometers in the southern area of Palestine. It has numerous riverbeds that are dry for most of the year but rush with water during the seasonal rains. During these brief periods, the beds become lush with vegetation. The psalm concludes with a prayer that the life-giving streams of God’s Spirit will revive Israel again just as the seasonal rains revive the Negeb. God’s saving acts in the past strengthen Israel’s resolve to look toward the future in hope, even as she toils now in what seems to be fruitless labor.
This Psalm inspired the popular American Spiritual, Bringing in the Sheaves, lyrics and music of which is in the public domain:
Sowing in the morning, sowing seeds of kindness,
Sowing in the noontide and the dewy eve;
Waiting for the harvest, and the time of reaping,
We shall come rejoicing, bringing in the sheaves.
Bringing in the sheaves, bringing in the sheaves,
We shall come rejoicing, bringing in the sheaves,
Bringing in the sheaves, bringing in the sheaves,
We shall come rejoicing, bringing in the sheaves.
Sowing in the sunshine, sowing in the shadows,
Fearing neither clouds nor winter’s chilling breeze;
By and by the harvest, and the labor ended,
We shall come rejoicing, bringing in the sheaves.
Going forth with weeping, sowing for the Master,
Though the loss sustained our spirit often grieves;
When our weeping’s over, He will bid us welcome,
We shall come rejoicing, bringing in the sheaves.
“Rejoice always, pray constantly, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.” Vs. 16-18. This condensed word of exhortation is worth its weight in gold. It sounds hopelessly trite to say that we would all be a good deal happier if we rejoiced instead of crabbing; prayed instead of worrying and gave thanks instead of complaining. Like most biblical exhortations, it is trite apart from faith in Jesus Christ. Placed into the context of the entire first letter to the Thessalonians however, these words are rich with meaning. Because Jesus conquered death, we can rejoice even when death encroaches upon our lives. Because Jesus is always present in our midst, all times are right for prayer. Because we know that the most precious possession we have, the kingdom of heaven, can never be taken from us, we always have much for which to be thankful. It is God’s will that we be joyful, prayerful and thankful. God enables us so to live by giving us good reason for joy, prayer and thankfulness.
Paul warns the Thessalonian church not to “quench the Spirit” or “despise prophecy.” Vss. 19-20. To fully appreciate what Paul is saying here we need to look beyond this letter to his first letter to the Corinthian church. There Paul speaks of the Spirit as the One that calls each individual member into a single Body. Members of the Body never act on their own behalf to further their own selfish interests. They exercise their unique gifts to build up and strengthen the Body. See I Corinthians 12. Prophesy is one such gift to be exercised to that end.
Why would anyone despise prophesy? You only need to read a little of it from the Hebrew Scriptures to understand why prophesy is sometimes met with hostility. Part of a prophet’s job is to tell the community things it does not want to hear. Churches don’t like to be told that they are unwelcoming, member oriented and harbor attitudes of racial prejudice. Churches don’t like being told they need to change. Churches sometimes wish that the prophets among them would just shut up already. But the health of a church depends on vigorous prophetic critique to keep it honest and focused on what matters.
Of course, prophesy is designed to build up the Body of Christ. Even when it seems to anger, tear down and divide, its ultimate goal is the health of the Body. Thus, prophesy is more than simply an angry rant. Sadly, too much of what passes for prophetic preaching these days amounts to little more than “Bad Dog Sermons.” That is a phrase coined by M. Craig Barnes in a recent article in the Christian Century. He writes: “Most of the people who come to church these days already have a pretty clear sense of their ethical and moral responsibilities. We’re well trained and know what we ought to do. There is little gospel in telling us we’re not doing enough. But that’s the message the church keeps giving.” I must confess that I am not quite as convinced as Barnes that people who come to church always have a clear sense of ethics or morals. Very often it is our very morality that messes us up. Still, simply beating people over the head with their shortcomings does little to motivate and transform. For that we need the good news of Jesus Christ.
Paul is a model of prophetic preaching. He could be painfully blunt in pointing out the failures of his churches. Yet he could also say of his most troublesome and dysfunctional congregation, “Now you are the Body of Christ.” I Corinthians 12:27. He does not say, “You should be the Body of Christ,” or “if you ever get your act together, someday you might be the Body of Christ.” Paul assures his churches that they are in fact Christ’s Body, the church for which Jesus died and the church through which he now lives. Then he goes on to encourage his churches to become what they already are!
“The material about John [the Baptist] in each Gospel is best understood as each evangelist’s attempt to make clear to his readers this important distinction between the Baptist and Jesus Christ.” Marsh, John, Saint John, The Pelican New Testament Commentaries (c. 1968 John Marsh pub. by Penguin Books, Ltd.) p. 116. At least that is the take of one commentator. While it probably is the case that John’s disciples continued as a community after his execution by Herod Antipas and that this community’s existence made it necessary for the church to address John’s role in the drama of Israel’s redemption, I doubt that this was the only or even the primary purpose for including his ministry in the gospel narrative. In all of the gospels, and most explicitly in John’s gospel, the Baptist serves a critical literary and theological purpose. John the Baptist grounds the ministry of Jesus in the Hebrew scriptural narrative while at the same time showcasing its radical uniqueness. What the story of the transfiguration accomplishes for the synoptic gospels, John’s narrative concerning the Baptist’s ministry does for his own gospel. It testifies to the continuity of Jesus’ mission and ministry with the law and the prophets while distinguishing his person from both Moses and the prophets.
As noted by commentator Raymond Brown, the Sadducean rulers in Jerusalem would not likely have sent Pharisees to represent them. Their appearance here reflects the time of this gospel’s composition following the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem and the reconstitution of Judaism thereafter. Brown, Raymond E., The Gospel According to John I-XII, The Anchor Bible, vol. 29 (c. 1966 by Doubleday) p. 44. By this point, the Pharisaic tradition had come to define Judaism as a whole and was the chief antagonist for John’s church. Ibid.Not surprisingly, then, the role of the Pharisees all but eclipses that of the chief priests who were likely the principle authors of Jesus’ arrest and conviction.
That said, it would not have been unusual for the religious authorities in Jerusalem to investigate the activity of John the Baptist. Vs. 24. Anyone capable of drawing a crowd of admirers within the restive provinces of Judah and Galilee would naturally be of concern to the ruling elites eager to maintain the status quo. It would also be natural to inquire whether John was claiming to be a messianic figure or even a lesser apocalyptic figure such as the returning Elijah foretold in Malachi 4:5-6 or the prophet promised by Moses in Deuteronomy 18:15. Vss. 20-21. But John’s gospel has a specific theological point to make here. As the representative of the law and the prophets, the Baptist must disclaim every redemptive role to be fulfilled by Jesus. Thus, he testifies “I am not” the Messiah. “I am not” Elijah. “I am not” the prophet. These disclaimers must be viewed against the multiple instances in which Jesus will declare “I am.” See e.g., “I who speak to you am he [messiah].” John 4:26 (To the woman at the well); “I am the bread of life” John 6:35; “I am the living bread which came down from heaven” John 8:12; “Truly I say to you, before Abraham was, I am” John 8:58; “I am the door of the sheep” John 10:9; “I am the good shepherd” John 10:14; “I am the resurrection and the life” John 11:25; “You call me teacher and lord; and you are right, for so I am” John 13:13; “I am the way, the truth and the life; no one comes to the Father, but by me” John 14:6; “I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinedresser” John 15:1; “I am he.” John 18:5 (To the temple police at his arrest).
When it comes to who John the Baptist is, John will only say that he is “a voice.” “Essentially, John does nothing [in the gospel] but testify to Jesus.” Collins, Raymond F., “From John to the Beloved Disciple,” Interpretation Vol. 49, no. 4 October 1995, p.362. “[I]n effect, his is the voice not only of God but also of the implied author.” Ibid. John cannot speak positively until Jesus arrives on the scene. Only then does John have something to which he can point and say, “Behold!” John 1:29.
Karl Barth once said that the church is only the impact crater left by Jesus. I think that says too little. The Apostle Paul is emphatic in his insistence that the church is the Body of Christ, and for him that is no mere metaphor. It is nevertheless true that the church is called to be fully transparent so that the world sees Jesus in it. We faithfully discharge our witness solely to the extent that we have been shaped by the impact Jesus has made upon us. To the degree that we call attention to ourselves, our works and our projects we get in our own way. So Barth is correct in one sense. Without Jesus, we are just an empty hole in the ground. Our existence derives from our testimony to the One who is to come.
Good news that isn’t newsworthy; a poem about the ordinary; and the lessons for Sunday, December 10, 2017
SECOND SUNDAY OF ADVENT
PRAYER OF THE DAY: Stir up our hearts, Lord God, to prepare the way of your only Son. By his coming strengthen us to serve you with purified lives; through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.
John the Baptist appears in the wilderness seemingly out of nowhere in Mark’s gospel. Luke tells us that John the Baptist did his growing up in the wilderness. I am not sure exactly what that means. Did he spend his childhood and young adulthood in some small settlement on the outskirts of the civilized world? Or did he literally make his home in the wilds like one of the desert fathers? Whatever else it might mean, it is obvious that John was far removed from the doings of history’s movers and shakers, some of whom we meet in the early chapters of Luke’s gospel. It is doubtful that John was following the stormy conflicts between the Roman Emperor, Tiberius and the Roman Senate. He was probably unaware of the intrigue and power struggles between the likes of Philip, Lysanias and Herod. If he was aware that Caiaphas held the office of high priest under the imposing shadow of his much more powerful father-in-law, Annas, we have no indication that this was of any interest to him. When you live in the wilderness, you find yourself in much closer proximity to forces of nature that are far more determinative for human well-being than the antics of kings and emperors. It is much harder to entertain grandiose delusions about your power, prestige and importance when you are surrounded by animals superior in strength, speed and wilderness survival skills. Standing alone under the cloudless canopy of the heavens has a way of putting you in your place and reminding you that you are, after all, only a small, fleeting piece of a universe that existed countless eons before you and will go on long after even your headstone has forgotten your name.
The wilderness seems to have taught John that the way of the Lord does not come forth from the decree of emperors nor is it prepared by the campaigns of armies. God speaks from the wilderness, that is, from the margins of human society. The news Luke’s gospel brings is not being made in Jerusalem, Rome or any other metropolitan hub. It is happening in the back waters of the backwaters of the empire: in the hills of Judea; in unknown hamlets like Nazareth; and in the darkness of a stable where a homeless couple gives birth to a child. If CNN, Fox News or any of the other big networks had been around in the First Century, I doubt they would have bothered covering John or the events he proclaims. Then, as now, they would be covering what we deem newsworthy. That surely does not include an unknown preacher from the hinterlands.
The trouble with us is that we don’t know what the real news is. We think the news is made in New York, Washington D.C., Brussels or some other metropolitan center that is the hub of political and commercial activity. We think that history is made by great men wielding great power. We imagine that the lines on the map demarcating the borders of nation states are real. We think the important things are what the headlines say they are and that what matters is whatever happens to be trending. It never occurs to us that the birth of a baby in Zimbabwe or the graduation of a young girl from high school in Appalachia might turn the course of human events far more significantly than any act of Congress. It doesn’t cross our mind that the graduate student working late in the lab might move the world more profoundly than any election, war or revolution ever could. Life in the wilderness reminds us that we are at the mercy of powers far greater than ourselves, that we no more drive the currents of history than a boat drives the currents that carry it across the sea, that truly world shattering events are hidden within the small, the ordinary and routine. That is where “all flesh shall see the salvation of God.” Luke 3:6.
Here’s a poem that captures the holiness and significance of the ordinary, obscure and hidden.
In Search of Prime Residential Real Estate
I’d like to live in a place
Where you can get a cup of coffee
Without having to specify,
Large, very large, jumbo,
Mocha, Columbian or Java.
Let me make my home
In a place so far from
The nearest metropolis
That you can’t get reception
For network stations
Without a computer
And that with difficulty
As there’s no broadband access.
Let history’s great moments
Make their way to me
Through the lens of local news
And humbly take their place
Beneath those truths
That are timeless,
Real and unchanging.
I want to live on open land
Where nothing obstructs my view
Except the sky.
And let that sky be so wide
And so chuck full of stars at night
That nobody looking up into the heavens
Will ever be able to imagine
That he’s any more important
Than a Spring tulip that’s long gone
Before the end of May.
I want to live among simple folk
Who, like that tulip,
Grow strong and beautiful in their season,
Toil at honest labor till it ends,
Fade with grace when it passes,
And expect nothing in return.
Chapter forty of Isaiah marks the beginning of a section of that book commonly referred to as “The Book of Consolations” or “Second Isaiah.” Whereas the prophet Isaiah of the first thirty-nine chapters preached to Judah in the 8th Century as the nation lived uneasily in the shadow of the Assyrian Empire, the historical context of this unnamed prophet we refer to as “Second Isaiah” is Babylon’s defeat by Cyrus the Great in or around 538 B.C.E. Babylon’s policy was to carry into exile the leading citizenship of the nations it conquered. This reduced the potential for revolution in these captive provinces while bringing into Babylonian society thousands of skilled and gifted leaders. Cyrus’ policy was to permit peoples, such as the Jews, living in exile within the Babylonian territories he conquered to return to their homelands. Though often hailed as an enlightened and compassionate act, Cyrus’ policy was calculated to destabilize Babylon. When the captive populations learned that Cyrus intended to set them free, they were quick to rally to his side against their Babylonian rulers. The prophet of the Book of Consolations recognized in this new historical development the hand of God creating an opportunity for the people of Judah to return to their homeland-and much, much more.
Nachmu, Nachmu, ami omar elohachem or “Comfort, Comfort my people,” says your God. This heading inspired the title, “Book of Consolations” for Isaiah 40-55. As noted above, most of this section of the book was composed sometime in the 500s-two hundred years after the time of the prophet whose oracles are found in Isaiah 1-39. Having been destroyed by Nebuchadnezzar’s army in 587 B.C.E., Jerusalem was now little more than a heap of ruins. The prophet’s commission to cry out words of comfort and consolation to this broken and uninhabited city is reminiscent of God’s command to Ezekiel in chapter 37 of that book to prophesy to the valley filled with dead bones. In both cases, speaking would appear to be a futile exercise. Yet because the prophet speaks the life giving word of God, even the dead cannot remain unmoved. John’s Gospel builds on this understanding by characterizing Jesus as “the Word made flesh.” God is not merely “as good as his word.” God is God’s word. John 1:1.
Speak tenderly to Jerusalem,
and cry to her that she has served her term,
that her penalty is paid, that she has received from the Lord’s hand
double for all her sins.” Vs. 2.
It is not the case that sin can be quantified and erased by a proportionate punishment. Rather, the point is that the Babylonian conquest and subsequent Exile has done what God intended for it to do. Israel is now in the same position she was while in Egypt and God now promises a new act of salvation similar to the Exodus.
‘In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord,
make straight in the desert a highway for our God.
Between the City of Jerusalem and the area between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers where the exiles were living stands a vast desert of rocky hills where the temperatures soar into the triple digits and virtually no water is to be found. Yet just as God once prepared a way through the sea for the Israelites to escape from the armies of Pharaoh, so now God is preparing a way through this forbidding desert for the exiles to return to Jerusalem.
A voice says, ‘Cry out!’ vs. 6. It is important to keep in mind that there were no quotation marks in the Hebrew text. Those appearing in the English translation represent the judgment of the interpreter. Many scholars feel that the translators have misplaced the quotation marks in this chapter. Rather than placing the end of the quote after “what shall I cry?”, many scholars believe that the quotes should close at the end of verse 7. In that case, the key verses read as follows:
A voice says, ‘Cry out!’
And I said, ‘What shall I cry? All people are grass,
their constancy is like the flower of the field.
The grass withers, the flower fades,
when the breath of the Lord blows upon it;
surely the people are grass.’
[The voice responds, ‘Yes, it is true]
The grass withers, the flower fades;
but the word of our God will stand for ever.
[Therefore,] Get you up to a high mountain,
O Zion, herald of good tidings;
lift up your voice with strength,
O Jerusalem, herald of good tidings,
lift it up, do not fear; say to the cities of Judah,
‘Here is your God!’
In my view, this placement yields a more coherent reading.
“Surely the people are grass.” Vs. 7. Many Hebrew Scripture scholars believe this fragment to be the gloss of a later editor. Be that as it may, it fits perfectly the historical and canonical contexts. The remnant of Israel is indeed as frail as grass. The exiles have been living for a generation in a foreign land. They are losing their language. Their young people, who have no memory of Jerusalem’s glorious past, are neglecting worship and perhaps even deserting to the gods of Babylon. Israel is a dying culture of graying heads. Nevertheless, it is not the strength and vigor of the people, but the word of the Lord that will accomplish the miraculous second exodus from Babylon to Judah. Unlike the legacy of nations, tribes and civilizations that flower and fade, the word of the Lord remains forever.
“herald of good tidings” In stark contrast to the prophet Isaiah whose ministry took place during the Assyrian period under Kings Jotham, Ahaz and Hezekiah, this prophet brings no word of warning or judgment. His or her word is strictly one of good news and glad tidings.
“Say to the cities of Judah, ‘Here is your God!’” vs. 10. Throughout his ministry, the prophet Isaiah of the 8thCentury (Isaiah 1-39) hoped for a descendent of David that would live up to the high calling of Israel’s king. He was repeatedly disappointed. It is noteworthy that there is only one fleeting reference to David in the Book of Consolations (Isaiah 55:3) and no thought of restoring the line of kingship in Israel. Although some biblical sources portray the Davidic line as a gift from God to Israel, Israel itself was always deeply ambivalent about the office of the king. The prophet Samuel saw Israel’s move toward monarchy as a blatant rejection of God as Israel’s one and only king. See I Samuel 8 & I Samuel 12. The prophet of the Book of Consolations appears to be of the same mind. The only king to which s/he ever refers is God. See Isaiah 44:6.
Clearly, these words of comfort strike a joyous chord for a people that has heard too little comfort. Indeed, I find too often that, rather than being the joyous message of good news, my preaching only unloads additional burdens. “You are not compassionate enough toward the poor; you are not culturally sensitive enough; you are not a welcoming community; you do not give enough;” etc. While all of that might be true, it does little to motivate and much to discourage. The good news is that God bears the burden of bringing about a radically new state of affairs. That burden does not lie upon our shoulders. We are invited (not compelled, or “guilted”) to participate in God’s redemptive purpose for all creation. That puts everything in a new light!
This is a psalm of lament or, as Professor Walter Bruegemann would call it, “a psalm of disorientation.” According to Bruegemann, the psalms address human life in all of its varied seasons. There are seasons of wellbeing in which the faithful heart recognizes the blessedness of a life well lived, the rewards of righteous conduct and the well-oriented structure of human existence as it is lived out in the context of the created world, family and community. There are also seasons of anguish, brokenness and chaos when life does not make sense. Injustice, violence and cruelty seem to abound unchecked. Persons are so traumatized that recovery and healing seems impossible. God seems absent and life is disoriented. Then, too, there are seasons of re-orientation. After severe shock and trauma, life never returns to normal if “normal” means the way things used to be. You never get over losing a child. But you might discover in your grief ever deeper levels of family love, friendship and support that allow you to heal and grow. People who have been through periods of disorientation can never again sing the old songs from the season of well-being in quite the same way. They have learned how much life can hurt. But that is not all they have learned. They have come to recognize that God was indeed present even when God seemed most absent. Re-oriented people no longer expect to be spared from all suffering and disorientation, but they are firmly convinced that, come what may, God will always be with them. See, Bruegemann, Walter, The Message of the Psalms, (c. 1984 Augsburg Publishing House) p. 19.
This psalm begins with an affirmation of God’s faithfulness to Israel in the past. It is critical to understanding what is going on here. Though it is hard to discern the specifics, it is obvious that this prayer was composed during a turbulent time in Israel’s history. Times are hard and the psalmist acknowledges that this is due in no small part to God’s displeasure with Israel. Yet the psalmist can pray confidently because he or she has a recollection of occasions in the past where God has turned from anger to compassion. (see vss. 1-3). The psalm concludes with a confident affirmation of the psalmist’s belief that God will intervene to save once again as God has always done in the past.
Most remarkable is the certainty on the part of the psalmist that steadfast love, faithfulness, peace, righteousness and goodness constitute the future of God’s people. As the earlier verses of the psalm make clear, these words are spoken from a context of despair. The psalmist has lived through a long period of darkness and there is no light at the end of the tunnel. His or her hope arises from memory. The psalmist remembers the faithfulness of God to Israel in dark times past. These memories sustain him or her in the present darkness and open a porthole into a brighter hope.
Memory is important. I have heard stories all my life of deathbed conversions, but I have never seen one and rather doubt that they happen with much frequency. I say that because I believe faith is a habit of the heart. Trust develops in the context of relationships spanning years. Only a history of faithfulness and loyalty proves that the one you trust is in fact trustworthy. If the Lord has been your shepherd leading you through the traumas of adolescence, the challenges of establishing yourself in the world of work, the anguish of family life and the uncertainties that accompany growing older, then it is not such a stretch to believe that the Lord who has taken you so far will accompany you also over the last frontier. Faith like this cannot be learned in a crash course. So let us build these sustaining memories now by attending to worship, prayer, giving, service and daily meditation on the scriptures.
As always, I encourage you to read Psalm 85 in its entirety.
The Second Letter of Peter is probably the last of the New Testament writings. It was probably composed well into the 2nd Century. The letter appears to be dependent in part on the brief Letter of Jude (cf. II Peter 2:1-8 and Jude 4-16). The author speaks of the letters of the Apostle Paul in such a way as to suggest that these letters had been collected into a body of writings and were beginning to be treated as authoritative scriptures. II Peter 3:15-16. Thus, the II Peter would have to have been written well after the death of the Apostle Paul which could not have been much earlier than 65 C.E., and might have been considerably later according to some scholars. In either case, it is all but certain that the letter is not the work of Simon Peter, spokesperson for the Twelve Apostles in the gospels. It is likely the work of a second generation disciple influenced by the teachings of Peter and who therefore published his work under Peter’s name. As I have noted before, this was a common literary practice in antiquity that was not considered dishonest or deceptive. Rather, it was the way in which a disciple honored the master by whom he considered his work to have been inspired.
The twofold purpose of the letter seems to be 1) to address the disappointed hopes of those who had expected the immediate return of Jesus in glory; and 2) to warn the church against false teachers. There is not much said about these false teachers other than that they are evidently within the church, yet bring in false teaching “even denying the Master who bought them.” II Peter 2:1. Whatever their teachings, the author of the letter has nothing but contempt for them, heaping upon them no less than twelve verses of non-stop abuse. II Peter 2:10-22.
Sunday’s lesson dove tails very nicely with the gospel in which Jesus encourages his disciples to stay awake and “watch.” As I have said as recently as last week, I do not believe in the “crisis” experienced in the early church due to the alleged “delay of the parousia” (coming of Jesus in glory). I do believe nonetheless that, in the apostle’s day as now, we grow weary of not knowing what time it is. The church tends to veer between the extremes of apocalyptic certainty that the end is just around the corner or even on an ascertainable date on the one hand, and a demythologized confidence in the purely metaphorical meaning of these passages that renders them harmless and irrelevant. Whether one prefers to believe in a date certain for the end, or whether one prefers a humanistic confidence in the inevitable march of human progress, it amounts to the same thing. It locates our place along a continuum thereby answering that vexing question, “are we there yet?”
The apostle does not give us any such satisfaction here. On the one hand, like Jesus, he insists that the universe as we know it is destined to pass away. Until that process is complete, we wait. Vs. 12. Our waiting is not passive, however. Knowing what we do about the end, we need to be asking ourselves “what sort of persons ought we to be in lives of holiness and godliness.” Vs. 11. If you know the future of creation is Jesus, then your life should conform to Jesus in the present age-even if such a life takes the shape of the cross. Disciples of Jesus are called to live in God’s future now.
This new church year takes us back into the Gospel of Mark. Because Matthew and Luke both relied upon Mark in composing their own gospels, it is possible to examine how each of them made use of Mark’s material and so get a glimpse into their own theological outlooks and purposes. There is no such baseline for Mark, however. Or, to put it another way, Mark is the baseline as far as gospels are concerned. There were no gospels before him as far as we know and scholarly opinions about his source material are, in my humble opinion, speculative at best. So we must take Mark’s gospel as we find it.
One striking thing about Mark’s gospel is its brevity in comparison with Matthew, Luke and even John. Matthew and Luke each have a nativity story. John’s gospel opens with an eloquent poem about the Incarnation. Mark tells us nothing about Jesus’ birth, lineage or place of origin. We hear simply that Jesus came up from Nazareth in Galilee to be baptized by John. Vs. 9. Significantly, when Jesus comes up from the river Jordan after his baptism, he sees the heavens rent apart and the Spirit descending upon him like a dove. Vs. 10. Granted, the “he” could refer either to John or to Jesus. But since John has no reaction to this remarkable event and says nothing about it thereafter, it is more likely that Jesus is the only witness to the descent of the Holy Spirit and the voice proclaiming him God’s Son. Of course, we readers already know this because we have been told in verse 1 that Jesus is both Messiah and Son of God. This information is hidden from most other observers at this point and will remain so throughout the gospel narrative.
A passage from our Hebrew Scripture reading in Isaiah is cited to explain the role of John the Baptist. Like the prophet to the exiles, John is a voice proclaiming liberation and an Eden-like path homeward. Repentance, as used in common parlance, is too much associated with remorse, regret and guilt. While these feelings might very well be associated with repentance, they are minor players. Literally translated, “repentance” means “to turn around.” It is an opportunity to abandon the path of self-destructive sinfulness and pursue a different, life-giving way. You don’t have to repent. You get to repent.
One might wonder why the “Son of God” should need repentance. Again, the problem is that we typically think of repentance only in a negative sense. But as noted previously, to repent means simply to “turn around.” For us, this necessarily means turning away from sin, but that is not the whole story. More importantly, repentance is turning toward an invitation to new life from a gracious and compassionate God. As we will discover throughout Mark’s Gospel, Jesus’ life was one of turning always toward the will of his heavenly Father against all efforts by the devil, his enemies and even his own disciples to turn him in other directions. Consequently, it is possible to say that Jesus’ life was one of constant repentance.
The mood, then, for this gospel is one of joy, hope and anticipation. John has identified for us the “highway of salvation” proclaimed by the prophet in the Book of Isaiah. Mark’s gospel invites us to keep our eyes on him and watch him closely. For salvation will turn out to be nothing like what we think it is!
FIRST SUNDAY OF ADVENT
PRAYER OF THE DAY: Stir up your power, Lord Christ, and come. By your merciful protection awaken us to the threatening dangers of our sins, and keep us blameless until the coming of your new day, for you live and reign with the Father and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.
Apocalyptic literature, such as we find in Sunday’s gospel, is hard for us mainline protestants to digest. We are progressive in our outlook. We expect the kingdom of heaven to come incrementally. Shaped as we are by 19th Century rationalism, we view our present state of civilization as the vanguard of a slow but steady march from barbarism to liberal democracy and beyond. We can point to enough instances of progress to make this view of reality somewhat plausible. We have outlawed the overt practice of slavery. We have created an international network of alliances, agreements and institutions which, though they cannot altogether prevent war from breaking out, limit the scale of warfare and provide mechanisms for resolving military conflicts that might otherwise drag on indefinitely. Freedom, equality and prosperity are reachable for more people today than at any other time in recorded history. All of this suggests that we are progressing toward a better day.
The gospel, however, challenges our faith in progress. The evangelist reminds us of truths we would prefer to ignore, namely, that the increased prosperity of some has come at the expense of many more who remain mired in poverty; that slavery has been abolished in name only and is very much alive for victims of human trafficking and millions laboring in harsh conditions for wages that cannot sustain them. The treaties and institutions that have maintained peace and stability in many parts of the world are experienced as oppressive and unjust to many who had no voice in their creation nor any role in governing them. Moreover, these institutions are beginning to collapse under the weight of a new nationalism spreading across the globe. Racist ideologies and patriotism grounded in “blood and soil,” once thought relegated to the dust bin of history, are on the rise. The hard-fought gains for people of color, sexual minorities and women in this country that we hoped were permanent are in danger of being lost. Our faith in progress is being shaken-and that might be a good thing because faith in anything less than Jesus is idolatry.
The evangelist warns us against the notion that we can obtain intelligence into the when and how of God’s coming reign. S/he assures us that the day of the Lord will come, but that the timing and method of its coming are beyond our comprehension. The evangelist is clear on one thing, however. The kingdom will not come through gradual, incremental, peaceful evolution. It will come through revolution, violence and bloodshed. The institutions to which we look for peace, stability and progress must be dismantled in the birthing of the new creation. To those of us who have traditionally looked to the institutions of the old order for security, peace and progress, that is a frightening word. Yet for the many who find these very structures oppressive, violent and unjust, the apocalyptic message of Mark is remarkably good news.
During the Advent season we are reminded that we can only wait for new creation. That is a bitter pill to swallow for those of us who would like simply to patch up the old creation. It is hard to be told that a “kinder, gentler empire” will not do. The evangelist is telling us that the new world cannot dawn without the death of the old. This means that a lot of what we hoped was permanent, a lot of what we believed was good, a lot of what we worked so hard to achieve will be dissolved before we arrive at God’s gentle reign of peace.
That isn’t to say that what we do in the meantime doesn’t matter. Precisely because we know the world ends in God’s reign of justice and peace, it matters all the more how we spend whatever time we have left. We must practice justice and peace now so that the world may know its destiny is God’s kingdom and so that we might be formed into the kind of people capable of living faithfully in that kingdom when it finally is revealed. Making the world a better place is not a vain effort. To the contrary, that is why human beings were created. It is critical, however, to recognize that nothing we accomplish, however good and important, is eternal. No gain that we make is irreversible. Neither our lives nor our accomplishments are immune from the “change and decay in all around I see.” We can hope, pray and even expect that our works of justice, compassion and mercy witness to the kind of world God is making. But we dare not confuse our efforts with God’s own redemptive work. By all means strive to make progress; but trust only in God.
Here’s a poem by Jones Very on that very point.
The New World
THE NIGHT that has no star lit up by God,
The day that round men shines who still are blind,
The earth their grave-turned feet for ages trod,
And sea swept over by His mighty wind,
All these have passed away, the melting dream
That flitted o’er the sleeper’s half-shut eye,
When touched by morning’s golden-darting beam;
And he beholds around the earth and sky
That ever real stands, the rolling shores
And heaving billows of the boundless main,
That show, though time is past, no trace of years.
And earth restored he sees as his again,
The earth that fades not and the heavens that stand,
Their strong foundations laid by God’s right hand.
Source: American Religious Poems, Harold Bloom and Jesse Zuba, editors; pub. by Library of America, Inc. p. 96. This poem is in the public domain. Jones Very (1813–1880) Though a minor figure in the American poetic pantheon, Very’s work was highly regarded by such prominent figures as Ralph Waldo Emerson and Bronson Alcott. He studied at Harvard Divinity School until he succumbed to religious delusions that lead to his expulsion. His style bears the mark of his devotion to William Shakespeare whose sonnets he often emulated. You can find out more about Jones Very and sample more of his poetry at the Poetry Foundation website.
The fifty sixth chapter of the Book of Isaiah opens into what scholars agree is a third collection of prophetic oracles separate from the prophet Isaiah of the 8th Century B.C.E. (Isaiah 1-39) and Second Isaiah (Isaiah 40-55) who prophesied toward the end of the Babylonian Exile. These prophesies, comprising what is commonly called “Third Isaiah” (Isaiah 56-66), come from a period beginning shortly after the return of the exiled Jews from Babylon in 539 B.C.E., but before the rebuilding of the temple in about 515 B.C.E. The band of exiles, inspired by the poetic promises of Second Isaiah to brave the dangerous journey across the Iraqi desert from Babylon to Palestine, arrived home to find Jerusalem in ruins and the land inhabited by hostile tribes. The Eden like path through the desert promised by Second Isaiah did not materialize. Life in Palestine proved to be difficult, dangerous and unpromising. The people were understandably disappointed and demoralized. This was the tough audience to which Third Isaiah was called to appeal. A people led to such a desperate plight by their belief in a prophet’s promises were probably not in any mood to listen to yet another prophet! Third Isaiah opens with the words, “Maintain justice and do what is right, for soon my salvation will come.” Vs. 1. You can almost hear the people groaning in the background, “Oh no! Here we go again!”
The prayer of lament that constitutes our lesson is, according to Professor Claus Westermann, one of “the most powerful psalms of communal lamentation in the Bible.” Westermann, Claus, Isaiah 40-66, The Old Testament Library (c 1969 SCM Press Ltd.) p. 392. The prophet does not take lightly the disillusionment of his/her people. Speaking in the voice of the community, s/he cries out, “O that thou wouldst rend the heavens and come down…” vs. 1. Like the rest of the people, the prophet longs for God’s intervention. The prophet reminds God (as though God needed reminding!) that there was a time when God did act decisively on Israel’s behalf. The prophet alludes to the saving acts of God in the past. Though lacking in specificity, the prophet’s references to “terrible things that we looked not for” might well include the Exodus, the Conquest of Canaan, the triumphs of Samuel and David. Vss. 3-4. God acted then, so why not now?
Of course, the prophet knows and the people no doubt suspect that the reason for God’s silence is tied to their own lack of covenant faithfulness. Yet the people cannot help but feel that God’s anger is out of proportion to their offenses. In verse 5, the prophet cries out, “Behold, thou wast angry, and we sinned…” The order here is most curious. It almost seems as though the people attribute their sin to God’s anger. How can one believe in and trust a God whose wrath is so unsparing? No wonder that “no one calls upon [God’s] name, that bestirs himself to take hold of [God].” Vs. 7. It is God “who has delivered [Israel] into the hands of [her] iniquities.” Vs. 7.
Our reading ends with a plea for God not to be so exceedingly angry. Vs. 9 “Thou art our Father,” the prophet declares. “We are the clay, and thou our potter; we are the work of thy hand.” Vs. 8. In verses 11-12 (not in our reading) the prophet calls God’s attention to the holy city of Jerusalem and the once great temple of Solomon, now in ruins. The poem concludes with a haunting question: “Wilt thou restrain thyself at these things, O Lord? Wilt thou keep silent, and afflict us sorely?” vs. 12.
This prayer strikes a resonant note for an age that seems far removed from miracles and unequivocal words and acts of God. For a good many modern folk, the stories of the Exodus and the Resurrection are just that, stories. At best, they are metaphors for experiences that fit neatly within the narrow confines of our secular frame of reference. For the most part, though, they are archaic myths that we have long outgrown. Those of us who still believe long for the God of the Bible to “rend the heavens and come down” so that we might be assured that the line to mystery, revelation and renewal has not gone dead. Are we shouting frantically into a broken connection? Is there no longer any listening ear on the other end?
I would encourage you to read chapter 65 of Isaiah in addition to our lesson. There you will find God’s response. God, it seems, is equally frustrated by the lack of communication. “I was ready to be sought by those who did not ask for me,” God replies. “I said, ‘Here am I, here am I,’ to a nation that did not call on my name.” Isaiah 65:1. Though God might not be responding with the fireworks Israel is seeking, God is responding nonetheless. So perhaps the problem is not with God’s silence, but with our lack of perception. Perhaps we cannot hear the word of the Lord because we have bought into the limited and limiting vision of empiricism. Perhaps the silence of God can be attributed to our lack of capacity to imagine, contemplate and be open to mystery. Maybe God is even now rending the heavens and coming down and we have only to open our eyes and look up to see the Advent of our God.
This is a psalm of lament. Mention of the tribes of Ephraim, Benjamin and Manasseh suggest that this was originally a psalm of the Northern Kingdom of Israel. Dating is difficult. The portrait of the land of Israel as an abandoned vineyard with its defenses torn down and its fruit at the mercy of any passing beast certainly fits what must have been the case following the Assyrian conquest in 722 B.C.E. Nonetheless, we must keep in mind that the Northern Kingdom was considerably less stable politically than Judah under the line of David. It was also beset by its hostile neighbor, Syria, which frequently expanded its holdings into Israelite territory. Thus, it is entirely possible that this psalm dates from as early as the 9th Century. After the fall of the Northern Kingdom to Assyria, it is probable that this psalm and other literary traditions from the north were brought to the Southern Kingdom of Judah and incorporated into what ultimately became the Jewish scriptures. Anderson, Bernhard W., Out of the Depths-The Psalms Speak for us Today (c. 1983 by Bernhard E. Anderson, pub. by Westminster Press) p. 171.
As we saw in last week’s lesson from Ezekiel, the term “shepherd” is commonly associated with kings and rulers. “Enthroned upon the cherubim” (vs. 1) is an allusion to the presence of God symbolized by the Ark of the Covenant which had images of two of these heavenly beings on its cover. Exodus 25:17-22. Though the Ark had likely been captured or destroyed by this time and, in any event, would not have been in the possession of the Northern Kingdom, this term for God’s majesty lived on.
Like the psalm from Isaiah, this psalm also implores God to act and asks “how long wilt thou be angry with thy people’s prayers?” vs. 4. This is a common refrain throughout the psalms of lament. See, e.g., Psalm 13:1-2; Psalm 74:10; and Psalm 79:5. It seems as though God has abandoned his people to suffering and to the mockery of their enemies. As we see time and time again, Israel had no qualms about letting God know when she felt God was not holding up his end of the covenant. Yet as angry, disappointed and disillusioned as Israel sometimes was with her God, she never ceased speaking to God. As hard as it was for Israel to believe in God’s promises, it was harder simply to dismiss them. Israel knew that her ancestors lived for four hundred years as slaves in Egypt crying out for salvation before God sent Moses to deliver them. Israel knew that nearly all of those ancestors died on the long trek through the wilderness without seeing the Promised Land. Israel knew that in the past her ancestors had had to wait for God’s salvation. Why should things be any different now? With this knowledge and experience in her memory Israel cries out in the refrain found throughout this psalm, “Restore us, O God, let they face shine, that we may be saved!” vss. 3; 7 and 19.
In a culture that rewards speed, efficiency and instant satisfaction, the virtues of patience and persistence have little place. Praying to a God who acts in his own good time and for whom a thousand years is but a day has little appeal in the world of Burger King where you can have it your way right now. The Psalms remind us, however, that there is value in waiting. It is not just wasted time. Waiting gives us time to consider and contemplate that for which we pray. Those who practice prayer patiently and consistently know that one’s desires are transformed in the process. In the discipline of persistent and constant prayer, longings and desires are purified. We often discover in the process that what we thought we wanted, longed for and desired is not what we truly needed. By the time we recognize God’s answer to our prayer, our prayer has changed-and so have we. Waiting is perhaps the most important dimension of prayer.
As always, I urge you to read Psalm 80 in its entirety.
You might want to refresh your recollection concerning Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians. To that end, I refer you to the Summary Article by Mary Hinkle Shore, Associate Professor of New Testament at Luther Seminary, St. Paul, M.N. on enterthebible.org.
Our reading for Sunday is a snippet from Paul’s greeting to the church in Corinth. Paul alludes herein to the matters to be dealt with in the body of his letter, namely, “knowledge,” “eloquence,” “spiritual gifts,” and “the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ” at the “Day of our Lord Jesus Christ.” Of particular importance for the dawning of this Advent season is the promise of Christ to “sustain” us to the end. Vs. 8. Endurance is and always has been a key New Testament virtue. As I have said before, I do not believe there ever was a “crisis” in the early church prompted by the “delay of the second coming” (sometimes called “the Parousia”). I am convinced that the church understood from the witness of Jesus himself that the kingdom of God had come with power and glory in the cross and resurrection-but that in a sinful world the kingdom necessarily takes the shape of the cross. Though longed for, the consummation of the kingdom was not expected momentarily and the fact that it did not so occur did not occasion any “crisis of faith.” The God and Father of Jesus Christ was the God who sojourned with the patriarchs through their many years as foreigners in the Promised Land; the God who waited four hundred years before answering the cries of his enslaved people in Israel; the God who sat for seventy years in exile with his people and who sent his Son in the fullness of time. Patient longing has been part of the discipleship package from the start. It was not invented by the church to save its disillusioned members from their dashed hopes.
That means, of course, that disciples of Jesus must reconcile themselves to not knowing what time it is. The end (in the sense of Jesus becoming all in all) might come tomorrow. Yet again, it might not come for several more millennia. For all we know, tomorrow’s seminaries might include courses in space travel for pastoral leaders called to churches established at human colonies in far off star systems. Like the children of Israel in the wilderness, we do not know how long it will take for us to arrive at our destination, what the road ahead will look like or how we will know when we have arrived. Only patient, hopeful and confident trust in our Shepherd, the Lord Jesus Christ, can sustain us on this journey.
The language employed by Jesus in our reading is similar to prophetic judgment and apocalyptic speech employed in the Hebrew Scriptures. As such, it is “more than metaphorical, less than literal.” Hooker, Morna D., The Gospel According to Saint Mark, Black’s New Testament Commentaries, Vol. 2 (c. 1991 by Morna D. Hooker, pub. by A&C Black, Limited) p. 319. The imagery suggests cosmic dissolution. The coming of the Son of Man in glory means the end of the world as we know it.
That said, I believe Mark is doing something unique with this section of his gospel. Jesus has said before that “this generation will not pass away before these things take place.” Vs. 30. See also Mark 9:1. So the question is, what “things” is Jesus talking about? Note well that Jesus tells his disciples no less than three times to “watch.” Vss. 33-37. As we will see, they famously fail to stay awake and watch three times. Mark 14:32-42. At Jesus’ crucifixion, “there was darkness over the whole land until the 9th hour.” Mark 15:33. Jesus is acknowledged (albeit mockingly) as Messiah while hanging on the cross and confessed as Son of God at his death. Mark 15:21-39. Jesus, identified in the first chapter of Mark as “Messiah” and “Son of God” (Mark 1:1), is so glorified in his crucifixion-a strange sort of glory. Do these words of Jesus from our gospel lesson pertain to some cosmic event in the distant future? Or do they refer to Jesus’ impending crucifixion? Is the cross for Mark the end of the world?
I suspect that this is a matter of both/and rather than strictly either/or. What happened with Jesus did indeed initiate the dissolution of the cosmos. Evidence of dissolution is everywhere. Nonetheless, if the sky is falling it can only mean that God is replacing it with a new heaven and a new earth. The end of the world is therefore the revealing of God’s kingdom, which now is hidden under the form of the cross. The end of the world is plainly visible for all who are watching for it. I concur therefore with Professor Cranfield who has this to say:
“If we realize that the Incarnation-Crucifixion-Resurrection-and Ascension, on the one hand, and the Parousia, on the other, belong essentially together and are in a real sense one Event, one divine Act, being held apart only by the mercy of God who desires to give men opportunity for faith and repentance, then we can see that in a very real sense the latter is always imminent now that the former has happened. It was, and still is, true to say that the Parousia is at hand-and indeed this, so far from being an embarrassing mistake on the part either of Jesus or of the early Church, is an essential part of the Church’s faith. Ever since the Incarnation men have been living in the last days.” Cranfield, C.E.B., The Gospel According to Mark, The Cambridge Greek Testament Commentary (c. 1959 Cambridge University Press) p. 408.
Though Cranfield employs concepts that are far outside the theological outlook of Mark’s gospel, I believe that his conclusion is nonetheless sound. For Mark, the new age was inaugurated by Jesus in the midst of the old. The cosmic events surrounding the crucifixion are of one piece with the final convulsion in which the old age withers before the advent of the new.
This is a timely word for all who experience dissolution, whether it be the dissolution of the America they once knew, the dissolution of a marriage, the dissolution of a mind into dementia or the dissolution of a church. Jesus does not soft peddle the reality of death in all its aspects. The creation is subject to death and the convulsions of its death throes are everywhere. But these same convulsions, for those who are attentive, are birth pangs of something new. That is the good news in this lesson.
Six churches I have loved and what they taught me; A poem by Connie T. Braun; and the lessons for Sunday, October 22, 2017
TWENTIETH SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST
PRAYER OF THE DAY: Sovereign God, raise your throne in our hearts. Created by you, let us live in your image; created for you, let us act for your glory; redeemed by you, let us give you what is yours, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.
It is easy to breeze over the second lesson from Paul’s first letter to the church in Thessalonica. Paul commends the Thessalonian believers for their endurance under difficult circumstances and praises their faith. He encourages them with a recitation of the gospel. Then he tells them how very thankful he is for their church and its witness. It’s the sort of thing you would expect a pastor to write to a former congregation. But is there anything in here meriting reflection? Is there a sermon lurking under these pleasantries?
I believe there is, but it has taken me years to recognize it. Perhaps it is a function of my age, but I have become acutely aware in recent years of just how deeply I have been formed by the congregations of which I have been a part. I was baptized in Memorial Lutheran Church, a Missouri Synod Lutheran congregation in Bremerton, Washington. There I was first exposed to the hymns of the church, the etiquette of liturgical worship and the rhythms of the church year. I learned the Christmas story by participating in the Christmas Eve pageant-first as a back-up to the angel choir, then as an angel proper and finally as a shepherd. That is as far as my acting career went. I never managed to land a speaking part or a coveted role in the holy family.
I learned the Passion story at Memorial’s Wednesday night Lenten services. In lieu of a sermon, we watched film strips accompanied by a vinyl record upon which the phonograph needle had to be strategically placed by the quivering hand of an usher so as to line up with the night’s particular episode. These films, I must confess, left a lot to be desired on many different levels. But they managed to tell the story and, moreover, their coming to an end at the beginning of Holy Week gave us one more reason to rejoice on Easter Sunday. I learned from Memorial Lutheran Church that there is an alternative calendar, a parallel universe of time grounded in the Biblical story of salvation that is nonetheless woven into the fabric of ordinary time making each year holy.
When I was about eleven years old my family, along with several other families and individuals, left Memorial Lutheran Church. This departure was not the result of any falling out or dispute. It was in response to the challenge of our district leadership to begin a mission congregation at the other side of town where new residential communities were popping up like dandelions in springtime. Before we had enough money to purchase land or determine whether the ministry upon which we were embarking was even viable, we named our new venture “Peace Lutheran Church,” called a young pastor fresh out of seminary to lead us and began worshiping in the VFW Hall next to the high school. Over time, we selected a lot overlooking what would become a large shopping mall and community center. Every step of the way presented a new challenge, but somehow, the Lord provided. Our excitement was evidently contagious, because our numbers increased as we continued to worship, dream and build.
It was not always easy going. With no store of past tradition and experience to lead us, it sometimes seemed as though we were learning all over again what it meant to be a church. I like to think that I shared my own adolescence with this young church and that we kind of grew up together. It was during my sojourn at Peace Lutheran Church that I first heard the call of Jesus to the ministry of Word and Sacrament. I learned from Peace that the church is not a static institution, but an organic, mission oriented fellowship that is forever extending its tendrils out into new territory.
During my first year at Seminary, I was assigned to Trinity Lutheran Church in Minneapolis, Minnesota for my mandatory semester of field work. Trinity was a traditional, well established Lutheran congregation-until construction of a new freeway resulted in the condemnation of its sanctuary by eminent domain. Left physically homeless, the congregation soon discovered that it lacked the resources to rebuild in any area where it made sense to build a church. Nonetheless, a core of committed members remained convinced that there was important work to be done on behalf of God’s kingdom in their neighborhood. So the congregation elected to begin renting space in the sanctuary of an old Belgian Catholic parish. Freed from the time, expense and aggravation of maintaining a building, the little congregation was free to focus its energies entirely on mission. Forging relationships with student organizations at nearby University of Minnesota, partnering with tenant rights groups and working ecumenically with neighboring churches, Trinity built a thriving ministry to people of all backgrounds, ages and ethnicities. I grew to love that church so much that I became a member and worshiped there throughout my three years of seminary. I learned from Trinity in Minneapolis that the church is a people, not a building and that congregational life is always more vibrant when mission comes first.
As part of my seminary training, I was required to do a year of internship ministry at a parish under the direction of an ordained minister. Once again, the church I served was called “Trinity,” though this time the sanctuary was located in the Bay Ridge area of Brooklyn, New York. The parish began as an ethnic Norwegian congregation in the pietist tradition. Its first crisis occurred in the 1950s when the English speaking sector of younger congregants eclipsed those who grew up worshiping in Norwegian. After an emotional meeting that left many members in tears, the decision was made to move the Norwegian worship service to a chapel in the church’s basement and yield the sanctuary to the younger English speaking worshipers.
Of course, this was all in the distant past when I arrived. By the time I came on the scene, the new generation of English speaking Lutherans had aged into the old guard. The growing sector of the church came out of what began as a “mission” to the changing neighborhood that worshiped in Spanish. Once again, the complexion of the church was changing and the people of God were struggling to respond faithfully. Enthusiasm for the new thing God was doing burned alongside a deepening sense of loss for what had been. From Trinity in Brooklyn I learned that the Church belongs to Jesus Christ, that it is always being molded for mission and that we can never foresee or control the shape our church will take in the future. Nonetheless, whatever shape the church takes, whatever language its members speak, whatever style of worship they adopt, the church will be exactly the church Jesus needs to do the work of the kingdom at hand.
I have had the privilege of serving three churches as pastor since my ordination in 1982, these being Our Saviour’s Lutheran in Teaneck, Church of the Savior in Paramus and Trinity Lutheran in Bogota (all New Jersey). I think it is more than fair to say that they have taught me a great deal more than I could ever have hoped to teach them. I have learned from my three congregations that the way we go about getting things done is infinitely more important than actually getting things done. I have learned that being the church is far more important than anything the church does. I have learned that getting together on a Sunday morning to hear God’s word and to receive the body and blood of Christ is a really big deal. I have learned that planting seeds in the minds of my members and letting their imaginations run wild is a far more effective leadership model than trying to sell them on the agenda I have concocted-even when I believe in my heart that my agenda is the right one. I have learned that success and failure don’t matter, but that faithfulness is critical.
Occasionally, I have been stabbed in the back by people I trusted to have my back. That goes with the territory. Always, in every crisis I have ever faced, someone in the church has been there to squeeze my hand, give me a hug or a word of encouragement that was just enough to lift my spirits and see me through. That is grace. Time and again, people I had long dismissed as self-absorbed, petty and cruel suddenly performed courageous and selfless acts of compassion that knocked my socks off and forced me to see them in a whole new light. That is a miracle of the Holy Spirit. I have learned through the churches I have served that in every church every individual is there because Jesus has called them. Everyone in every church is there because Jesus has something to teach us that we cannot learn without them. I only hope that I have been able to reflect in my own ministry to these churches some small measure of all they taught me. I can join St. Paul in giving “thanks to God always” for all the congregations that have been so very formative for me.
Poems about congregational life and the role of the church in one’s formation are rare-at least in the American lexicon. The “spiritual but not religious” brand of “me and God” or “me and the great spirit, life force, higher power, etc.” kind of religion is not a new phenomenon. To the contrary, it is deeply ingrained in our individualistic character as a people. There is something deeply and offensively “un-American” about subscribing to a creed or being subject to the teaching authority of any church. Independent people think for themselves. Only weaklings let a church “cram religion down their throats.” Of course, the Bible is authoritative as “God’s word,” but only as long as I get to decide by myself what it means for me. Nevertheless, there has always been a faithful witness within our borders to a way of life in which the individual is not king, in which the common good takes precedence over personal whims and the authority of the Bible is too important to be subjected to the fancy of anyone who takes it upon him/herself to interpret it. That witness, in my own humble opinion, has been most faithfully maintained among our Roman Catholic, Orthodox and Anabaptist communities. These believers understand better than the rest of us that we are not self-made, that we are the product of the families and communities in which we live and that we cannot tell our stories fully and honestly apart from them. Here is a poem by Connie T. Braun expressing that reality.
My Life Cannot be Grasped
“My life cannot be grasped as a singular totality.”
A life cannot be grasped
as a singular totality. The story
of my death can only be told
by others; my beginning, only
by others. My birth belongs
to the history of my parents.
It is the story in the middle
that I will tell. Let me
share it with you, then ask you
if you will tell my ending
after I’m gone, if you will
be the one to tell the story of love.
Source: Unspoken: An Inheritance of Words (Fern Hill Publications, 2016) also published in the Center for Mennonite Writing Journal, Vol. 9, 2017. Connie T. Braun is an author and instructor of Creative Writing. She lives in Vancouver, British Columbia and is an associate member of the League of Canadian Poets, a member of the Canadian Author’s Association and a board member on the literary publications, Prism International and Image Journal.
This reading is taken from the second section of the Book of Isaiah (Isaiah 40-55) authored in the main by an anonymous prophet speaking a message of salvation to the Jewish exiles living in Babylon during the 6thCentury B.C.E. His was the task of alerting his fellow exiles to the new opportunity created for them to return home to Palestine opened up by Persia’s conquest of Babylon. On the one hand, the prophet makes a joyous declaration of salvation for Israel and announces the potential for a new start. On the other hand, the prophet makes clear that God is doing with Israel something entirely new. This will not be a return to “the good old days” when Israel was a powerful and independent people under the descendants of David. That, according to the prophet, “is too light a thing” for the people of God. Israel and the servant prophet are to be given “as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.” Isaiah 49:6. For more specifics on the Book of Isaiah generally, See Summary Article by Fred Gaiser, Professor of Old Testament, Luther Seminary, St. Paul, MN.
In this chapter, the prophet makes the startling announcement that Cyrus, emperor of Persia, is his anointed, his “messiah.” The Hebrew word, משיח (Meshiach) “anointed one” or “messiah,” is usually denotes one raised up from within Israel to lead the nation to victory against and enemy. The exiles might be incensed that their God did not raise up a child of Israel to fill the role of savior. But the prophet responds that God’s way of doing things is not to be questioned. The ancient prophecies will be fulfilled in God’s way. God is the master of God’s words, not the servant. Moreover, the Lord’s salvation is not for Israel only. It is for the ends of the earth and all nations which, when they see the miraculous success of Cyrus over them, will come to know that the Lord of Israel is God and that “there is no other.” Vs. 6.
Verses 2-3 give us a fairly accurate description of the success Cyrus has experienced thus far. His armies have advanced with little opposition into territories formerly ruled by Babylon. The prophet indicates that this startling success and lack of opposition Cyrus meets in his conquests is proof positive that the Lord is going before him. According to the prophet, Cyrus will one day recognize the God of Israel as the author of his success, but there is no evidence that he ever did. As has been seen before, God’s calling a person by name establishes a relationship of special ownership. Nevertheless, as much as God is doing for Cyrus, it is not Cyrus and his empire, but Israel who is to be the chief beneficiary of Persia’s campaign.
The prophet reminds his audience that the driving force behind history is neither Cyrus nor their Babylonian captors. Though the empires of the world pursue their own ambitions, agendas and policies, they are the unwitting instruments of Israel’s God who bends their self-serving actions to his own redemptive purpose for Israel and for the nations of the world. As illustrated elsewhere throughout the Book of the Prophet Isaiah, the nations “are like a drop from a bucket, and are accounted as the dust on scales.” Isaiah 40:15. This is a sobering word for a nation that has always fancied itself “the leader of the free world,” “a shining city on a hill,” and has taken on numerous other semi-messianic titles. “Crowns and thrones shall perish, kingdoms wax and wane,” the old hymn tells us. Despite the insistence of Christian nationalists to the contrary (See my post from Sunday, July 26, 2017), the United States is not God’s chosen nation and Americans are not the chosen people. We are just another drop in the bucket.
A good deal of preaching, teaching and programming in the church (liberal, conservative and in between) seems directed at “saving America.” We tend easily to direct the prophets’ invective against social injustice against the U.S. Congress-as though it were answerable to God’s covenant with Israel. Though progressives are loath to suggest that American should be a “Christian” nation, they often point to Jesus in defense or in opposition to certain legislation that has large humanitarian implications. To be sure, Jesus and the prophets tell us that all nations will be judged on the basis of how they have treated their most vulnerable members. The nations of the world are therefore answerable to God for their moral conduct, but that is far different from asserting that the nation as a whole is a covenant partner with standing to claim the promises God offers Israel and the church.
This is important for several reasons, not the least of which is that we are not in a position to know the intent or will of God for the United States or any other nation state. Rev. Franklin Graham insists that God placed Donald Trump in the White House and he might be right about that. It may be that God has determined it is high time this “drop in the bucket” evaporated. It is possible that the United States has become an impediment to whatever God has in mind for the earth’s future. If that’s the case, what better way to bring it to its knees than to put at its head a narcissistic man baby who has never read a book in his life (including his own ghost written autobiography), never held public office and cannot put together a coherent declarative sentence to save his soul. Of course, I don’t know this to be God’s intent and I rather hope it isn’t. But we need, at the very least, to be open to the possibility that the future we desire for our country might have no place in the future God desires for the cosmos. If that is the case, all our efforts to “save America,” whatever that might mean from our respective theological perspectives, are at best vain and at worst obstructionist.
This psalm is included as part of a hymn commissioned by David to celebrate the entry of the Ark of the Covenant into Jerusalem, his newly established capital. Weiser, Artur, The Psalms, A Commentary, (c. 1962 by S.C.M. Press, Ltd) p. 628; See I Chronicles 16:23-33. Scholars do not agree on whether this psalm was composed originally for this occasion. Rogerson, J.W., and McKay, J.W., Psalms 51-100, The Cambridge Bible Commentary (c. 1977 Cambridge University Press) p. 220. The psalm bears some resemblance to enthronement liturgies used to celebrate the crowning of a new Judean king (see, e.g., Psalm 2). These coronation psalms were later adapted and transformed into hymns celebrating the Lord as king of all the earth. As I Chronicles was composed rather late in Israel’s history (after the Exile), it is likely that its author appropriated this psalm into his/her work. Of course, it is also possible that the psalm did in fact have its origin in the annual commemoration of the Ark’s arrival in Jerusalem so that the author of I Chronicles was simply placing the psalm back into its historical context. In either case, the psalm calls upon the nations to acknowledge Israel’s God as God over all the earth.
The psalm calls for a “new song,” (vs. 1) reminding us that Israel’s God is forever doing a “new thing” requiring a fresh expression of praise. It is for this reason that worship must never become mired in the past. Old familiar hymns are fine. But if that is all you ever sing, then you need to ask yourself whether you are properly giving thanks to God for all that is happening in your life today and whether your heart is properly hopeful for the future God promises.
“The gods of the nations are idols.” Vs. 5. If God is God, everything else is not God. An idol is therefore anything that claims to be God or which demands worship, praise and obedience that can only rightfully be demanded by God. The reference in the psalm is obviously to the national gods of rival nations, but idolatry can as well attach to nationalist pride, wealth, political power, human leaders or anything else to which people pay godlike homage.
“Ascribe to the Lord, O families of the peoples…” vs. 7. The psalmist calls upon all nations to worship Israel’s God whose justice and mercy belong to them also. In this hymn Israel is putting into practice her calling to be a light to the nations of the world by calling them to join with all creation in praise of the one true God. This is the way of blessing for all of creation.
According to the Book of Acts, Paul came to Thessalonica on his second missionary journey, somewhere between 40-45 C.E., after having been driven out of Philippi. As was his practice, he visited a synagogue and engaged the congregation in discussions about Jesus as the Messiah for about three weeks. Acts 17:1-3. Some of the Jews and “god-fearing” Greeks were persuaded by Paul’s message. Acts 17:4. The congregational leaders, however, rejected Paul’s preaching and publically accused him of sedition against Rome. These accusations incited a riot against Paul and his new converts. Acts 17:5-9. The new believers escorted Paul out of town for his protection. Acts 17:10-12. I leave to people who care about such things the inconsequential issue of whether the Book of Acts can be relied upon as a historically accurate source. Since our 19th Century notion of “historical accuracy” was not wired into the brains of the New Testament writers and is of limited utility in our 21st Century, I find the question uninteresting. One might as well contemplate how history would have turned out if the Aztecs had developed the atomic bomb. It is clear from the letter itself that there were at least three weighty concerns for the Thessalonican congregation. 1) Paul was forced to leave the congregation early in its development and is concerned that it lacks maturity and solid leadership; 2) Paul’s character, motives and integrity have been challenged by some unknown critics; and 3) church members have theological/pastoral concerns about death and dying.
Our reading consists of the opening chapter of I Thessalonians which begins with Paul’s customary greeting in the name of “God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.” Vs. 1. The letter is actually addressed from Silvanus and Timothy as well as Paul, but there can be little doubt that Paul is the principal author. Timothy, we know, was a close companion of Paul whose ministry is mentioned in I & II Corinthians as well as in this letter. “Silvanus” might be an alternate form of the name “Silas,” Paul’s chosen companion for his second missionary journey according to the Book of Acts. Acts 15:36-41.
Paul praises the church for its courageous faithfulness in the face of affliction. The church’s suffering is a mirror image of Paul’s own experience of opposition in bringing the good news of Jesus to Thessalonica. Vss. 5-6. Just as the Thessalonian church amplifies the ministry begun by Paul, so also does it amplify the good news throughout the Mediterranean world. Vss. 7-8. The nature of the church’s faithful confession and the source of its suffering is clear from Paul’s remark about how well known it is that the Thessalonian believers “turned to God from idols, to serve a living and true God.” Vs. 9. The worship of idols did not consist principally in the exercise of sincere religious faith. By this time in history, most of Rome’s subjects no longer believed in the gods of antiquity. These gods had become symbols of Roman power, Roman supremacy and Roman values. Worshiping them was more an act of patriotism than religious devotion. Nevertheless, in the view of the early church, worship of the state and worship of false deities amounted to the same thing. One cannot confess that Jesus is Lord and simultaneously declare that Caesar is Lord. The political nature of this declaration that “Jesus is Lord” is spelled out in the witness of the Book of Acts to Paul’s missionary work in Thessalonica:
“But the Jews became jealous, and with the help of some ruffians in the market-places they formed a mob and set the city in an uproar. While they were searching for Paul and Silas to bring them out to the assembly, they attacked Jason’s house. When they could not find them, they dragged Jason and some believers before the city authorities, shouting, ‘These people who have been turning the world upside down have come here also, and Jason has entertained them as guests. They are all acting contrary to the decrees of the emperor, saying that there is another king named Jesus. The people and the city officials were disturbed when they heard this, and after they had taken bail from Jason and the others, they let them go.” Acts 17:5-9.
We American protestants, hung over as we are from our fifteen and one half century Constantinian drinking binge, are still trying to disentangle ourselves from the religious patronage we have become accustomed to providing the state. Though the United States has never had a state church as such, it has leaned heavily on mainline protestant churches to uphold its middle class values, give religious content to its ideologies, bless its wars and sanctify its policies. More than half our churches still have American flags in them and I suspect that removing them would raise a greater outcry than removing the cross. We have a difficult time separating our identities as American citizens from our baptismal identity as subjects of Christ’s kingdom. That is largely because it has never occurred to most of us that there could be any such separation. Now the separation is upon us. America has now learned that it can go on its way very nicely without the church. The church, however, is still reeling from the break up, wondering what it said that was wrong, refusing to acknowledge that the divorce is final and wondering whether there is any way to patch things up.
It will come as no surprise to anyone following this blog that I think it is high time to accept the divorce as final (with thanksgiving!). I find here one more instance of support for the thesis that the most radical thing the church can do is simply be the church and stop worrying about whether that is relevant to anything else on anyone’s agenda.
There are two very important lessons here, each deserving separate treatment, which the common lectionary, in its infinite wisdom, has seen fit to cram into one reading. The first is the controversy over tribute to Caesar which happens to be one of the most commonly misinterpreted texts in the New Testament. Typically, preachers have treated this lesson as a discussion about the role of government. The issue pressed by the Pharisees and Herodians sets up a false dichotomy, or so the argument goes. It is not a matter of God vs. Caesar, but what is owed to each. Because the kingdom Jesus proclaimed was a “heavenly” kingdom practiced through personal morality, it does not displace Caesar’s role as emperor. Faith does not require disloyalty to Caesar, but rather complements his civil authority with heartfelt obedience to a deeper personal morality. Thus, Caesar is simply “the left hand of God” at work in the world maintaining a semblance of order so that the higher morality of faith can thrive.
Nothing could be further from Jesus’ message here. Note first of all that the Herodians, with whom the Pharisees were here allied, were collaborators with Rome. They had no sincere wish to engage Jesus in a discussion about how a conscientious Jew lives faithfully under pagan domination. Nor was the issue of loyalty to Caesar one that required extensive discussion. The First Commandment is clear. “You shall have no gods beside God.” Exodus 20:3; Deuteronomy 5: 7. Moreover, you are not to make or worship any image as divine. Exodus 20:4-6; Deuteronomy 5:8-10. (Actually, that is the Second Commandment for most non-Lutheran folks). So when Jesus is confronted with the question about paying taxes to Caesar, he asks his opponents for the coin with which they intend to pay the tax. It is noteworthy that Jesus must ask them for this coin. He obviously does not have such a coin in his possession. The fact that his opponents do speaks volumes. The minute they produce the coin and hand it to Jesus, the argument is finished. Jesus has already made his point. Now it’s just a matter of having a little fun with his opponents.
With a little imagination, we can readily see how this confrontation plays out. “Oh, my!” Says Jesus. “This coin has an image on it!” His opponents are now beginning to squirm. Just as Jesus turned the question of authority back on the heads of these opponents a couple of Sunday’s ago by bringing up their compromised position on John the Baptist, so now he confronts them in the presence of the people with a clear violation of the First Commandment. “Sorry.” Says Jesus. “I didn’t quite catch that. Could you speak a tad louder, please? Whose image did you say was on this coin?”
“Caesar’s,” they mutter in a barely audible reply. The crowd has got to be loving this.
“Well, then,” says Jesus handing back the coin, “Let’s just give back to Caesar what clearly belongs to him and give God alone what belongs to God.” Jesus’ opponents shuffle away with their idolatrous coin while Jesus himself is as free of idolatrous images as he was to begin with. Point made. The state is not God. It has no right to demand that a disciple take up the sword to fight its wars when the disciple’s Lord has commanded him to put up the sword. The state has no right to demand ultimate allegiance from a disciple that can be given only to the disciple’s Lord. Modern nationalism and its call for ultimate allegiance and blood sacrifice, no less than First Century imperialism, is rank idolatry. This is not a matter of both/and. It is a matter of either/or.
Next we move to the question about the resurrection of the dead. The Sadducees’ hypothetical is not as outlandish as it might seem. A woman incapable of bearing children might be divorced for that reason by any number of husbands. Perhaps that was the fate of the woman at the well in John’s gospel who had had five husbands. John 4:16-19. If that were the case here, the woman would not have belonged to any of the seven brothers because they would all have divorced her. In order for the hypothetical to work, the brothers must all have died while legally married to the woman in question. The logic employed by the Sadducees is absolutely air tight. If God had intended to raise the dead, God would never have instituted a requirement for remarriage, as such a practice would obviously create insoluble problems in the next life.
There is a serious concern behind this hypothetical for all of us who have been married even just once. Will those relationships that have formed us and become a part of our identity survive into the post-resurrection world? If not, then how can there be any meaningful resurrection? Who am I if not the product of those whom I love and those who have loved me? Jesus responds by informing his opponents that “in the resurrection they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven.” Vs. 30. Given how little the Bible actually tells us about what angels are like, this isn’t much of an answer. Perhaps it is Jesus’ way of saying that the question cannot be answered this side of eternity. Paul deals with substantially the same question in his first letter to the Corinthian church, which asks him what sort of body believers will receive in the resurrection. Paul is less diplomatic than Jesus. He says that the question is stupid. I Corinthians 15:35-36. Nevertheless, he goes on to answer it-after a fashion. He uses the growth of a plant from a seed as an analogy. Clearly there is continuity between the seed and the plant. They are one in the same. Yet the plant is so radically different, more complex and beautiful than the seed from which it came that one would never believe the two to be related if this miracle of growth were not taking place all around us every day. As difficult as it would be for one looking only at the seed of a plant s/he had never seen full grown to figure out what the full grown plant will look like, so difficult is it for us to imagine our bodily existence in the world of the resurrection. I Corinthians 15:35-50. Perhaps John says it best of all: “Beloved, we are God’s children now; it does not yet appear what we shall be, but we know that when he appears we shall be like him.” I John 3:2. That is really all we need to know.
Next, Jesus turns to what is the real issue, namely, the power of God. The Sadducees are not lacking in knowledge or understanding. Indeed, from a formal scriptural point of view, they have the stronger argument. Ancient Judaism had no conception of life after death beyond a vague notion of “sheol,” a shadowy underworld where there was little if any conscious existence. Though in no way similar to later notions of hell and eternal punishment, sheol was the dead end to which all life eventually came. The psalms seeking salvation from sheol are best understood not as a plea for eternal life, but a request not to be taken to sheol prematurely. Resurrection is spoken of specifically only in the Book of Daniel, one of the latest books in the Hebrew Scriptural cannon. Daniel 12:1-4.
Nevertheless, the Sadducees’ scriptural arguments fail and not for lack of interpretive skill, but due to a lack of faith and imagination. God is the master of his words, not the servant. Law, whether it consists of moral precepts or principles of natural science, is part and parcel of the universe God created. As such, it cannot bind its maker. God hardly needs scriptural sanction to raise the dead and so the only question is whether God is willing and able to do so. Jesus says “yes” to both. If God, the great “I Am,” introduces himself to Moses as “the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob,” does one dare to say that this God is a deity of the dead? No, says Jesus, all who are loved and remembered by God are alive in God. They are loved back to life by God.
This lesson offers a great opportunity for talking about resurrection, eternal life, what it is, what it is not and what can and cannot be said about it. Though we mainliners are reluctant to speak of resurrection other than as a metaphor of some great project or agenda, we need to shake off our 19th Century prejudices and recognize that we are living in the 21st Century. Death and resurrection are of great concern to a lot of folks who lack the conceptual tools and biblical images for contemplating the mystery of eternal life. If we remain silent, we cede this ground to the Left Behind crowd whose message is more about fear than hope.
EIGHTEENTH SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST
PRAYER OF THE DAY: Beloved God, from you come all things that are good. Lead us by the inspiration of your Spirit to know those things that are right, and by your merciful guidance, help us to do them, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.
My mom was one of the most politically correct people I have ever known. She would not have agreed with the dubious proposition that a person should speak whatever is on his or her mind. “If you can’t speak kindly of someone else,” she used to say, “keep your mouth shut.” That rule applied even when my unkind remarks were true. For example, there was no denying that old Mr. Salter who lived a block away was an ornery old cuss that hated children. Once when I accidentally kicked my soccer ball into his front lawn, he promptly stepped out the door, picked up the ball and took it into his house. I had a few choice words for him that day.
When I got home, I told Mom all about it. She informed me that she would take care of getting my ball back and I was to apologize to Mr. Salter. “Why?” I demanded. “It was an accident and it didn’t do any harm. The ball landed on the grass! Nothing got broke and I wouldn’t even have had to step on his lawn if he’d just let me pick it up!” “Not the point,” Mom replied. “Mr. Salter feels that you have disrespected him. He needs to know that he has our respect. It doesn’t matter who was right or wrong here. What matters is that we be good neighbors to each other.”
Mom was particularly intolerant of jokes and derisive comments directed to people with disabilities. I once called one of my friends a “retard” for reasons I no longer remember. I meant it as a joke and my friend took it that way, but Mom called me on it and delivered a stern rebuke. “But it was just a joke!” I explained. “It was between him and me. There were no other people around to hear it and be hurt.” “I heard it,” said Mom, “and it hurt me. Think about it. If you or somebody you cared about had a mental disability, would you want to hear an ugly word like that? Put yourself in somebody else’s shoes for once.”
For the same reason, too, racial epitaphs were forbidden in our home and that rule applied whether there were persons of color within ear shot or not. “The way you talk about people shows how you feel about them and whether you respect them,” she said. Mom taught us to practice respect whenever we opened our mouths so that we would grow up to be respectful.
Mom always believed that you “can’t judge a book by its cover.” So I doubt she would understand why so many people in our country feel that a Muslim cannot be a good citizen or why a judge of some particular ethnic background other than her own could not be fair and impartial or why you would automatically be fearful of someone simply because of where they come from, what language they speak or how they look. I also doubt she would find the rude, crude and insulting language that has been oozing out from the internet, talk radio and political leaders these days much to her liking. It isn’t that Mom couldn’t be forceful and assertive. She could be plenty assertive when she had to be. But she never lost sight of the humanity of the people she confronted. However much she might have disagreed with what someone else had said or done, she never failed to respect them or treat them as anything less than a human being loved by God and created in God’s image. No doubt about it, Mom was politically correct-only we didn’t call it politically correct back then. We just called it good manners.
I think St. Paul would have seen eye to eye with Mom on that score. In the fourth chapter of his letter to the Philippians (which is not, but should be included in our reading for Sunday), he says “whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.” Philippians 4:8. As Mom always said, your thoughts shape your words, your words shape your actions and your actions shape your destiny. We don’t need to allow our thoughts, words and actions be shaped by the shallow and mean spirited discourse we find all around us. We can instead be inspired by what is true, what is beautiful and what is good.
Here’s a poem by Gerald Stern celebrating a small, simple act of beauty and generosity that is worth thinking on.
In Beauty Bright
In beauty-bright and such it was like Blake’s
lily and though an angel he looked absurd
dragging a lily out of a beauty-bright store
wrapped in tissue with a petal drooping,
nor was it useless—you who know it know
how useful it is—and how he would be dead
in a minute if he were to lose it though
how do you lose a lily? His lily was white
and he had a foolish smile there holding it up like
a candelabrum in his right hand facing the
mirror in the hall nor had the endless
centuries started yet nor was there one thorn
between his small house and the beauty-bright store.
Source: Poetry Magazine (March 2010) c. by Gerald Stern. Gerald Stern (b. 1925) is one of America’s most celebrated poets. Born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, in 1925 to immigrant parents of eastern European Jewish descent, he has held positions at Temple University, New England College and Drew University. He also taught for many years at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. You can find out more about Gerald Stern and sample more of his poetry at the Poetry Foundation website.
This Sunday’s lesson is an oracle from the prophet Isaiah who lived and ministered in the Southern Kingdom of Judah and Jerusalem. His writings are found in Isaiah 1-39 along with much other material from various sources. For some more general background on the prophet Isaiah, see Summary Article at enterthebible.org by Professor Fred Gaiser of Luther Seminary, St. Paul, MN.
The comparison of Israel to a vineyard or to grape vines is a common one. It is found, for example, in our psalm for this Sunday. See also Hosea 10:1-2; Jeremiah 2:21; Ezekiel 19:10-14. The vineyard is also a common metaphor for a bride. Kaiser, Otto, Isaiah 1-12, The Old Testament Library (c. 1972 SCM Press Ltd) p. 60. Thus, the hearers are put on notice that this song is about more than a disappointing harvest. It is about betrayal at the deepest, most intimate level. The word for “choice vines” planted in the vineyard is a translation of the Hebrew word “soreq,” which means either red grapes or grapes native to the valley of Sorek west of Jerusalem. Because Isaiah’s poem bears many similarities to songs composed for the celebration of the Feast of Tabernacles, it is likely that the oracle was proclaimed to the people at this time, perhaps when they were gathered in the temple. Ibid. 59. Utilizing the language of praise and thanksgiving, the prophet composes a damning indictment against his people whose lives are as far from covenant faithfulness as wild grapes are from cultivated fruit.
After shocking his audience with this disturbing poem at a time when all are in the mood for celebration, the prophet asks the people to judge between the grower and his vineyard. What more could the grower have done? And more importantly, what must now be done with the vineyard? We are not privy to any response from Isaiah’s audience. If they have been following the prophet’s allegory, they already have an inkling of what will be revealed in verse 7, “For the vineyard of the Lord of hosts is the house of Israel, and the people of Judah are his pleasant planting; he expected justice, but saw bloodshed; righteousness, but heard a cry!” The prophet declares the grower’s intention for the vineyard, which should come as no surprise. Land that is unproductive needs to lie fallow for a year or two. Rather than sheltering the land, clearing the soil of rocks and weeds, it must be left exposed to the elements.
Although Professor Kaiser dates this oracle early in the career of Isaiah predating the Syro-Ephraimite conflict of 734 B.C.E., it seems to me that this oracle fits well with conditions under the reign of King Hezekiah following the destruction of the Northern Kingdom by Assyria in 722 B.C.E. Isaiah’s audience could hardly miss the dire threat of invasion, destruction and exile implied by the abandonment of the vineyard. They had, after all, witnessed that very fate visited upon the Northern Kingdom. Whatever the case may be, the clear implication is that Judah has failed to produce the fruits of righteousness and justice that her God had a right to expect in view of his kindness and faithfulness to her. For that she can anticipate the consequences all too graphically demonstrated in the fate of Israel to the North.
As dire as is the threat of judgment, there is some grace here as well. After all, the ultimate objective of abandoning the land to lie fallow is its regeneration. However convinced Isaiah may have been that Judah’s justly deserved conquest and exile were near, the book as a whole testifies to God’s determination to stand with Israel throughout the time of her punishment and bring her through judgment to redemption.
Using the same striking imagery of the vineyard employed by Isaiah in passing judgment upon the Southern Kingdom of Judah, the psalmist frames his/her prayer for salvation as a plea for God to come and attend once again his “vineyard” which has been inexplicably abandoned. Unlike the prophet, the psalmist does not make the connection between Israel’s unfaithfulness and her national calamity. S/he sees the pitiable condition of his/her nation as the consequence of God’s failure to honor the covenant promises made to Israel. Prayers such as this offend our Christian sense of piety and one commentator suggests that such sentiments as are expressed in this psalm constitute “an unworthy notion about the nature of God.” Rogerson, J.W. and McKay, J.W., Psalms 51-100, The Cambridge Bible Commentary (c. 1977 Cambridge University Press) p. 157. But prayer has less to do with our theologies about Good and more to do with our relationship with God. As all people of mature faith know, the feeling of desertion and abandonment by God is very real. Genuine faith gives expression to what is real-not to what pious convention dictates. Look no further than Jesus’ cry of dereliction from the cross for confirmation of that point! Mark 15:34; Matthew 27:46.
Though the psalmist assumes that God’s displeasure with Israel is at the root of the nation’s troubles, the very fact that s/he brings his/her complaint to God demonstrates the conviction that God has not rejected Israel for all time and is still open to her prayers. The psalmist is convinced that the God of the Exodus will finally turn and show compassion for his troubled people. This psalm demonstrates how Israel’s conviction that the loss of her land, temple and royal line represented God’s judgment on her covenant faithlessness did not come in a flash. It developed over a long period of reflection upon her covenant traditions, the preaching of the prophets and her experiences in exile. There was for Israel a long journey from the raw pain of conquest and exile to a mature understanding of both God’s judgment upon her past and God’s promise of a new beginning.
Mention of the tribes of Ephraim, Benjamin and Manasseh suggest that this was originally a psalm of the Northern Kingdom of Israel. Dating is difficult. The portrait of the land of Israel as an abandoned vineyard with its defenses torn down and its fruit at the mercy of any passing beast certainly fits what must have been the case following the Assyrian conquest in 722. Nonetheless, we must keep in mind that the Northern Kingdom was considerably less stable politically than Judah under the line of David. It was also beset by its hostile neighbor, Syria, which frequently expanded its holdings into Israelite territory. Thus, it is entirely possible that this psalm dates from as early as the 9th Century. After the fall of the Northern Kingdom to Assyria, it is probable that this psalm and other literary traditions from the north were brought to the Southern Kingdom of Judah and incorporated into what ultimately became the Jewish scriptures. Anderson, Bernhard W., Out of the Depths-The Psalms Speak for us Today (c. 1983 by Bernhard E. Anderson, pub. by Westminster Press) p. 171.
Once again, Paul’s Letter to the Philippians is not one letter but three.
Phil A = Phil 4:10-20 (a short “Note of Thanksgiving” for monetary gifts Paul received from the Philippians)
Phil B = Phil 1:1 – 3:1; 4:4-7; (a “Letter of Friendship” written from prison, probably in Ephesus)
Phil C = Phil 3:2 – 4:3; 4:8-9; 4:21-23 (a stern warning against the rival missionaries who require the circumcision of Gentiles)
Whereas the lessons for the last two weeks came from Paul’s “Letter of Friendship,” this week’s reading comes from his third letter of warning against rival missionaries urging gentile believers to receive circumcision. While Paul’s opponents in his letter to the Galatians were partisans of Jewish believers from the church in Palestine, his rivals in Philippi appear to be more distantly connected to Judaism. They might even be gentiles who have enthusiastically embraced diaspora Judaism and seek to draw Paul’s churches into their orbit. This would explain Paul’s appeal to his Jewish credentials. “You want Jewish?” says Paul. “I’ll show you Jewish!” Paul then launches into his family heritage; his upbringing; and his education. He crowns all of these fine credentials by pointing out that, “as to righteousness under the law” he was “blameless” even though his zeal led him to persecute the church. Vs. 6.
Clearly, Paul has made the case that his Jewish roots are genuine unlike those of his opponents. But then Paul goes on to say that his flawless pedigree does not amount to a hill of beans. “I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.” Vs. 7. Paul does not disown his Jewishness. He remains proudly Jewish. Nevertheless, it is not his solid Jewish heritage that makes him righteous. Righteousness for Paul is not first and foremost a matter of heritage, practices and tradition. Righteousness is relational. One is made righteous, not by following the right practices or believing the right doctrine, but by trusting the right person. “I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them as refuse, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own, based on law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith.” Vss. 8-9.
Paul then expresses the hope that he might know Jesus and the power of his resurrection and share in his sufferings to become like Jesus in his death. His hope is that in so doing he may share in Jesus’ resurrection. That all comes across as circular. Yet it makes sense. God’s resurrection of Jesus is God’s “yes” to Jesus’ obedient life and faithful death. To know the resurrected Jesus is to know the depth of God’s love, the immeasurable value of God’s promises and God’s determination to keep those promises. To become like Jesus in his death is to share the confidence of Jesus in the promises of his heavenly Father in the face of death. It is to live without fear of death.
Paul states quite honestly that he has not achieved such perfect confidence yet. He is plagued by a past that includes the persecution of Christ and his church. He struggles with personal impediments to his ministry. II Corinthians 12:7-10. Yet Paul refuses to let his present life be dictated by his past. Instead, he is motivated by God’s promised future that is made present to him in Jesus’ resurrection. “Forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Jesus Christ.” Vs. 14. As hopelessly corny as it may sound, today really is the first day of the rest of the disciple’s life. But this is not based on mere optimism. It is grounded in the resurrection of Jesus which is our own through faith in his promises.
The gospel re-orientates our lives. Rather than living out of the past, being shaped by our scares and having our relationships with others determined by the age old conflicts into which we were born, we are called to live now in God’s future achieved through the reconciling power of Jesus’ obedient life, faithful death and glorious resurrection. That changes everything!
The gospel, like our lesson from Isaiah and our psalm, employ the image of the vineyard. But that is where the similarity ends. For Isaiah, the vineyard was the rebellious nation that forgot the kindness and mercy of her God, neglected the covenant and produced the fruit of violence and injustice rather than faithfulness and peace. For the psalmist, the vineyard is a broken people struggling to understand why it has been forsaken by its God. Jesus’ focus in the gospel parable is not so much on the vineyard as it is on the tenants responsible for its care and for giving to the landlord his share of its produce. The parable is thus directed against the leaders of the people who, as we have seen, rejected the baptism of John just as their ancestors rejected the witness of the prophets. Matthew 21:31-32; Matthew 23:29-39. Now God is sending to them his Son. How will the leaders react? Will they finally respect the Son and acknowledge God’s rightful reign over Israel? Of course, we know the answer to that question-or do we? As a religious leader myself, this parable gives me profound discomfort. I am forced to ask myself whether I have faithfully tended the vineyard and offered the first fruits of my labor to the Lord, or whether I have treated my calling as a profession, put in my time and been content to take my pay and go home. Is my section of the vineyard struggling because the tenant in charge of it has been lazy, complacent and self-centered? The questions raised in my introductory remarks hang like a cloud over this story.
The parable presents us with a couple of imponderables. Why would the owner of the vineyard send his son into a situation so dangerous and hostile that it already cost him the lives of some of his servants? On what basis did the tenants determine that murdering the owner’s son would result in their getting title to the vineyard? Some scholars have speculated that the tenants erroneously assumed that the owner had died and that title had passed to his son. Assuming that the son was the owner’s only son and assuming further that the son had no heirs of his own, there would be no one to lay claim to the vineyard in the son’s absence. The problem, of course, is that this explanation relies on quite a number of assumptions outside the scope of the text.
Professor William R. Herzog, II has an interesting take on this parable (as he does on a number of Jesus’ parables). According to Herzog, the parable is about the conversion of farm land supporting subsistence farmers into cash crops, i.e., grapes for wine. Herzog, II, William R., Parables as Subversive Speech, (c. 1994 by William R. Herzog II, pub. by Westminster/John Knox Press) p. 108. It is likely, Herzog contends, that the vineyard was taken from distressed farmers who now operate the vineyard as tenants and sustain themselves by growing vegetables along the edges of what once was their own land. Ibid. The tenants, having been “forced beyond the narrow parameters required for their survival…had no choice but to rebel.” Ibid. The sending of the owner’s son is explained in terms of class expectations. “The father’s reasoning…reflects his social location and class attitude. He speaks as a confident elite who is certain that peasant tenants, even rebellious ones, will respect his son. Seen within the framework of ruling-class attitudes and assumptions, the father’s reasoning makes sense.” Ibid. at 110.
This interpretation requires us to lift the parable out of its context in the gospel and insert it into a speculative reconstruction of the setz un leben or “historical context.” In order for this reading to work, we need to reimagine a so called “historical Jesus” apart from the ideological distortions of the early church’s witness. This age old quest for the so called “historical Jesus” and his true message is, in my humble opinion, a wasted effort. Nevertheless, if you would like to embark on that journey, Herzog’s book is a great place to start. He is thoughtful, thorough and articulate. Please give my regards to Slender Man and the Tooth Fairy should you encounter them along the way-a prospect about as likely as finding the “historical Jesus.”
According to the parable as we have it in Matthew, there appears to be no ground for animosity on the part of the tenants against their landlord. The text is silent as to how the land was acquired. It appears, however, as though the landlord has made a significant investment in the land and understandably expects a return. That the actions of the tenants appear inexplicable goes to the parable’s point, namely, that Israel’s leaders have ruled her people in their own self-interested way rejecting the warnings of the prophets and of John the Baptist. Sending one’s son into the violent and volatile setting of a rebel occupied vineyard might not make sense from the standpoint of an absentee landlord who is just trying to get a handle on his investment property. But the landowner is God and the vineyard is God’s chosen people. To his own beloved people, God makes God’s self vulnerable in order to achieve reconciliation and peace.
“The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; this was the Lord’s doing, and it is marvelous in our eyes.” Vs. 42. This is a quotation from Psalm 118:22-23. The “chief corner stone” is probably the main stone supporting an arch, without which the structure collapses. Rogerson, J.W. and McKay, J.W., Psalms 101-150, The Cambridge Bible Commentary (c. 1977 Cambridge University Press) p. 88. The meaning of this ancient proverb is open to interpretation. It could well refer back to the confessional acknowledgement required of Israel that she was descended from “a wandering Aramean” and delivered from slavery in Egypt by the God who alone is responsible for her existence as his people. Deuteronomy 26:5-11. This seemingly insignificant people is in fact God’s people of blessing to all the earth. Naturally, the proverb provided assurance and hope during the period of Babylonian Exile when it seemed that Israel had been “rejected” by the builders of history. Not surprisingly, then, the Apostles recognized a parallel between the enslaved and exiled people of God exalted by God’s saving acts and the crucified messiah exalted through his resurrection.
The stone has a dual function in the gospel. It is the cornerstone of faith, but for unbelief it is a stumbling block. “The one who falls upon this stone will be broken to pieces; and it will crush anyone on whom it falls.” Vs. 44. This is possibly an allusion to Isaiah 8:14. “He will become a sanctuary, a stone one strikes against; for both houses of Israel he will become a rock one stumbles over—a trap and a snare for the inhabitants of Jerusalem.” It might also stem from a popular Jewish midrash: “If a stone falls on a pot, woe to the pot! If the pot falls on the stone, woe to the pot! Either way, woe to the pot!” cited at Nolland, John, The Gospel of Matthew, The New International Greek Testament Commentary (c. 2005 by Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.) p. 880. Either way, the immovability and permanence of the stone stand in stark contrast to the seeming vulnerability of the landlord’s son. The “stone” sayings might be said to reveal the true state of things that the tenants in the parable misunderstand to their own undoing.