Tag Archives: John the Baptist

“Thoughts and prayers” don’t cut it; a poem by Ellery Akers; and the lessons for Sunday, December 17, 2017

See the source imageTHIRD SUNDAY OF ADVENT

Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11
Psalm 126
1 Thessalonians 5:16-24
John 1:6-8, 19-28

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, but 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.

Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11

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 3:10Judges 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.

Isaiah 61:5-7.

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 19:30Matthew 20:16Mark 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.

Psalm 126

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.

Refrain:
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.
Refrain

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.
Refrain

1 Thessalonians 5:16-24

“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!

John 1:6-8, 19-28

“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

See the source imageSECOND SUNDAY OF ADVENT

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

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

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.

Anonymous

Isaiah 40:1-11

Chapter forty of Isaiah marks the beginning of a section of that book commonly referred to as “The Book of Consolations” or “Second Isaiah.” Whereas the prophet Isaiah of the first thirty-nine chapters preached to Judah in the 8th Century as the nation lived uneasily in the shadow of the Assyrian Empire, the historical context of this unnamed prophet we refer to as “Second Isaiah” is Babylon’s defeat by Cyrus the Great in or around 538 B.C.E. Babylon’s policy was to carry into exile the leading citizenship of the nations it conquered. This reduced the potential for revolution in these captive provinces while bringing into Babylonian society thousands of skilled and gifted leaders. Cyrus’ policy was to permit peoples, such as the Jews, living in exile within the Babylonian territories he conquered to return to their homelands. Though often hailed as an enlightened and compassionate act, Cyrus’ policy was calculated to destabilize Babylon. When the captive populations learned that Cyrus intended to set them free, they were quick to rally to his side against their Babylonian rulers. The prophet of the Book of Consolations recognized in this new historical development the hand of God creating an opportunity for the people of Judah to return to their homeland-and much, much more.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Say to the cities of Judah, ‘Here is your God!’” vs. 10. Throughout his ministry, the prophet Isaiah of the 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!

Psalm 85:1-2, 8-13

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

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

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

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

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

2 Peter 3:8-15a

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

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

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

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

Mark 1:1-8

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, January 15th

SECOND SUNDAY AFTER EPIPHANY

Isaiah 49:1–7
Psalm 40:1–11
1 Corinthians 1:1–9
John 1:29–42

PRAYER OF THE DAY: Holy God, our strength and our redeemer, by your Spirit hold us forever, that through your grace we may worship you and faithfully serve you, follow you and joyfully find you, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.

Our gospel lesson for this coming Sunday follows an episode in which John the Baptist is interviewed aggressively by the religious authorities from Jerusalem. In response to persistent questions about his identity, John tells us a good deal more about who he is not than who he is. But John’s reticence evaporates when he “sees Jesus coming toward him.” Suddenly, John has plenty to say! He speaks at great length about what he has seen. John tells us that he “saw the spirit descend as a dove from heaven, and it remained on him.” He has “seen and borne witness” that Jesus is the “Lamb of God.” How odd! How can you “see” the Spirit of God? What does the Spirit look like? How can you tell that the Spirit is “remaining” in any given space? Doesn’t Jesus tell us that the Spirit blows where she wills, that we hear the sound of her but know not where she comes from or where she is going? And what exactly did John the Baptist see to convince him that Jesus is the Lamb of God-whatever that might be? John doesn’t even try to explain himself. He simply points Jesus out to a couple of his disciples and says “Behold!” We don’t know what these two disciples saw in Jesus or understood about John’s witness. But what they saw and heard was enough to convince them to follow Jesus.

We put a lot of stock in our sense of sight. “Seeing is believing,” we are told. But our ability to process what we see is highly overrated. Study after study reveals that numerous factors influence both what we see and how we remember what we see. E.g. Lorenza, Sheena M., Factors Affecting the Accuracy of Eyewitness Identification, The Review: A Journal of Undergraduate Student Research, vol. 6 (c. 2003 by Fisher Publications). Our brain does a good job of distorting our sight. When something we see does not fit with our internal narrative about the way things are, our brain “corrects” our vision. That is why proof reading your own work is so difficult. You know what is supposed to be on the page. For that reason, your brain fills in the missing comas, conjunctions and letters you inadvertently omitted from the text. You read right over your mistakes because you see what you know is supposed to be there instead of what is. That goes a long way toward explaining how racial stereotypes persist in spite of ample evidence debunking them, why we find ourselves judging people we have known for only seconds and why there are some people in our lives who take offense at everything we say, never appreciate anything we do for them and never respond to any friendly overtures. Once the mind is made up, the eye seems always to follow suit. Thus, you can have 20/20 vision and still be blind.

We would all like to believe in a world where the truth is crystal clear, where the line between good and evil is stark and plain, where everyone we meet falls into recognizable categories. I suspect that is why the press is one of our most hated institutions among people of nearly all ideological persuasions. A good reporter uncovers facts that expose the errors in our scripts, blur the distinctions we use to make sense out of our chaotic existence and present to us a world that is nuanced, complex and too big to fit into our religious, political, ideological paradigms. Contrary to our modernist creed, we are not rational beings. Neither are we capable of “objectivity.” We believe what we want to believe and the facts (at least the discomforting ones) be damned. Anyone who has ever had the unpleasant task of arguing with a racist (or “white nationalist” as they like to be called these days) knows what I am talking about. As Simon & Garfunkel so aptly put it, “A man sees what he wants to see and disregards the rest.” Perhaps we have it backwards. Maybe you can’t see truly until you believe truly.

From the very beginning, John’s gospel provokes us to question everything we think we see and know. In these opening verses from our gospel lesson, John propounds mysteries that will deepen and unfold as his narrative builds. There are “signs” in Jesus’ ministry that are more suggestive than definitive. Every time we think we have a fix on Jesus, he eludes our conceptual grasp and coaxes us deeper into the riddle of his identity. At the conclusion of the gospel, we find the disciples as confused and directionless as ever. Even after witnessing Jesus’ resurrection, receiving the breath of his Spirit and being sent out into the world by him as he was sent by the Father, they still can find nothing better to do with their lives than go fishing. But Jesus will not let them be. He appears one last time, calling them to leave behind the last ties to life as they once knew it and follow him. In the end, there really is no faithful response to Jesus other than to inhale the Spirit he breaths upon us and follow him deeper into the Trinitarian mystery of love between the Father and the Son. In the process, we discover the poverty of our vision, unlearn all that we thought we knew and so begin at last to see with new eyes.

“Let not, therefore, but travail therein till thou feel list. For at the first time when thou dost it, thou findest but a darkness; and as it were a cloud of unknowing, thou knowest not what, saving that thou feelest in thy will a naked intent unto God. This darkness and this cloud is, howsoever thou dost, betwixt thee and thy God, and letteth thee that thou mayest neither see Him clearly by light of understanding in thy reason, nor feel Him in sweetness of love in thine affection. And therefore shape thee to bide in this darkness as long as thou mayest, evermore crying after Him that thou lovest. For if ever thou shalt feel Him or see Him, as it may be here, it behoveth always to be in this cloud in this darkness. And if thou wilt busily travail as I bid thee, I trust in His mercy that thou shalt come thereto.”  The Cloud of Unknowing, (an anonymous 14th Century English monk’s sublime expression of contemplative discipleship).

Here is a poem about the frailty of sight and the power of vision.

Vision

My vision isn’t what it used to be.
Time was when I could read signs
A quarter mile up the road.
I could make out the tree line
On mountain ranges, mark
The glacial frontier and the
Divide between ice and ice cold stone
With surgical precision and
Rock solid certainty.

Today, without specs,
I can barely discern the signs
In front of my face and wonder even so
If there is anything on them to be read.
Field and forest, ice and stone
All blend together into one
As life into death and I’ll be damned
If I can tell them apart from where I stand.
I squint at the horizon for signs of contrast,
Shape and defining form
But see only the blur of connectedness as,
It seems, did the great Monet in his declining years.
Yet lacking clarity, perhaps we see the more truly.

Source: anonymous

Isaiah 49:1–7

Once again the reading in Isaiah is taken from the second section of the book (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 6th Century B.C.E. For more specifics, See Summary Article by Fred Gaiser, Professor of Old Testament, Luther Seminary, St. Paul, MN. This is the second of four “servant songs” in which the prophet sings both of his own calling and struggles and, more widely, of Israel’s calling to be God’s light to the nations. For a more thorough discussion of the “servant songs,” see my post of January 8th. As I noted last week, it is not always easy to discern where the prophet is speaking of himself and where he is speaking of Israel as a whole. For example, the Lord declares, “It is too light a thing that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob…I will give you as a light to the nations.” Vs. 6. It seems likely that the prophet himself is the person addressed since he ministers to Israel. Most commentators seem to follow this view. I believe it is also possible, however, that the word is addressed to the Babylonian exiles whose return and restoration of Jerusalem will rally the “preserved of Israel” and so constitute a light to the nations. Again, these different interpretations are really a matter of emphasis. The prophet’s mission is inextricably bound up with that of Israel to the nations.

The first verse lets us know that the song as a whole is addressed to the nations: “Listen to me, O coastlands, and harken, you peoples from afar.” Vs.. 1. There are three stages of development according to Hebrew scriptural scholar Claus Westermann: 1) the election, call and equipment of the servant; 2) the servant’s despondency as a result of his perceived failure; 3) the servant’s new (or perhaps better understood) task. Westermann, Claus, Isaiah 40-66 (c. SCM Press Ltd 1969) p. 207. To the nations the prophet declares that he has been called to serve Israel’s God and Israel whose mission is to “glorify” God. Vs 3. Once again, the line between the identity and mission of the servant and that of Israel is necessarily blurry. The prophet/Israel is despondent because his life’s work/Israel’s history seems to have been in vain. Vs. 4. So far from glorifying God, Israel has become a despised refugee minority from a fallen nation.

In verse 5 the mood changes with the words “and now.” Though called to “bring Jacob back” to the Lord, such a calling is “to light a thing” for the servant. God declares that the servant will henceforth be given “as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.” Vs. 6.  Verse 7 does not appear to be part of the song set forth in verses 1-6. But it follows naturally from the servant song nonetheless. Though now deeply despised, ruled by foreign powers and oppressed, the day will come when “Kings shall see and arise; princes, and they shall prostrate themselves; because of the Lord, who is faithful, the Holy One of Israel, who has chosen you.” Vs. 7. Though perhaps uttered at an earlier time in more vindictive tones, within the present cannon this verse serves to emphasize how the servant’s and Israel’s faithful suffering obedience will finally bring the nations to their knees in adoration of Israel’s just and merciful God.

This and the other servant songs at Isaiah 42:1–9 Isaiah 50:4-11 and Isaiah 52:13-53:12 have been central to New Testament thinking about Jesus and his mission. It bears repeating that the biblical witness to peace and non-violence did not begin with Jesus. Note well how the prophet speaks of his/her call. God has made the prophet “a sharp sword” and a “polished arrow.” Vs. 2. Throughout the Hebrew Scriptures God’s weapon is God’s word, God’s voice, God’s speech. It is finally through persuasion that God reigns over humanity. Persuasion takes time, patience and a willingness to experience your efforts as “nothing and vanity.” Vs. 4. The way of the prophet foregoes coercion and the use of force. Such faithful suffering witness to God’s reign is, to use St. Paul’s words, foolishness. More precisely, it is the “foolishness of God.”  I Corinthians 1:25. Yet this “foolishness of God” is wiser than human wisdom that seeks results, demands progress and resorts to any means to achieve what it views as the right end.

Psalm 40:1–11

The lectionary folks might arguably have gotten it right in halving this psalm had they ended with verse 10 instead of verse 11. Verses 13-17 of the psalm are found nearly verbatim in Psalm 70. Thus, it appears as though Psalm 40 is a composite of at least two originally separate psalms. Verses 11-12 serve as a bridge linking together verses 1-10 and verses 13-17 into a single coherent prayer. For reasons I despair of ever understanding, the lectionary planners walked halfway across the bridge and stopped short. On the whole, I would have recommended including the entire psalm. It is important to understand that the psalmist uttering the words of praise in our reading is actually encompassed in “evils without number;” that his/her “iniquities have overtaken” him/her; that his/her heart fails him/her. The high praises for God’s past faithfulness and deliverance are thus a preface to the psalmist’s plea for deliverance.

Immature faith naively assumes that trust in God shields the believer from all harm. Growing faith laments, having discovered that covenant life with God sometimes plunges one into the depths of despair. Mature faith recognizes that evidence of God’s faithful intervention and salvation in one’s life stand side by side with indications of God’s absence. Neither praise nor lament can be permitted to exist exclusive of its seeming opposite. At all times both are called for. As Alfred North Whitehead has said, “the fairies dance and Christ is nailed to the cross.” Whitehead, Alfred North, Process and Reality-an Essay in Cosmology, (c. 1978 The Free Press) p. 338. This psalm binds both praise and lament together in a mature expression of faith in time of crisis. Though faced with numerous threats and challenges and seeing no obvious way out, the psalmist boldly cries out to God having recited God’s faithfulness to him/her throughout his/her life. I therefore recommend reading Psalm 40 in its entirety.

1 Corinthians 1:1–9

The reading is from the opening lines of Paul’s first letter to the church in Corinth. It constitutes a classic form of salutation used in opening letters customary to ancient Greek style, beginning with the name of the sender. That is important when you consider that these letters were originally produced as scrolls to be opened and read from top to bottom. If the letter were merely signed by the author at the end as we do today, the recipient would not know the identity of the sender until s/he had read the entire letter. The intended recipient is also placed in the salutation to ensure that the reader knows from the start the audience being addressed.

Though clearly the work of St. Paul, the letter is also from Sosthenes “our brother.” He is not mentioned at any other point by Paul. Some scholars suggest that he might be identified with the Sosthenes who, according to Acts 18:17, was chief of the synagogue at Corinth when Paul was arrested there. While possible, there is no textual evidence for this assertion beyond the name which appears to have been a common one. As in his other letters, Paul introduces himself as an Apostle called by God. The body of the letter will demonstrate that some in the Corinthian church had been comparing Paul’s apostleship and teaching authority unfavorably to other church leaders. Paul is laying the groundwork for the defense of his apostleship to be set forth more particularly in I Corinthians 15:3-11.

As usual, Paul begins his letter with an expression of thanksgiving for the church to which he writes. He also expresses confidence that the testimony of Christ has been so confirmed within the Corinthian congregation that it lacks no spiritual gift necessary to sustain it until “the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ.” Vs. 7. Paul’s confidence is based in God’s faithfulness as indeed it must. For as we discover upon further reading, the faithfulness of the Corinthian church was more than a little shaky.

It is worth noting that Paul routinely gives thanks for his churches-even a church as compromised as the Corinthian church with all of its personality conflicts, doctrinal disputes and moral lapses. In my view, clergy often do entirely too much complaining about their churches and the church at large. True, the church is far from perfect. Yet it is worth remembering that Paul could say even of this dysfunctional congregation, “Now you are the Body of Christ.” I Corinthians 12:27. Note that he does not say, “You should be the Body of Christ;” or “If only you could get your act together you might someday be the Body of Christ.” He says of this church “you are.” That is already enough reason to give thanks.

John 1:29–42

In this reading John the Baptist, who in previous verses has been reticent about his own identity and mission, now becomes quite vocal and explicit in testifying to Jesus. As New Testament scholar Raymond Brown points out, John unfolds through the speech of the Baptist a whole Christology. He identifies Jesus as the Lamb of God, the pre-existent one and the vehicle of the Holy Spirit. Brown, Raymond, The Gospel of John I-X11, The Anchor Bible, Vol. 29 (c. Doubleday, 1966) p. 58. The reading opens with what Brown identifies as an “encounter formula” frequently employed in the Book of Revelation substantially related to the Johannine literature. A messenger of God sees a person and says “Look” or “behold” followed by a description in which the seer reveals the mystery of the person’s mission. Ibid. A similar instance of this formula is found later in vss. 35-37. The construction has roots in the Old Testament as well. (See, e.g., I Samuel 9:17).

There has been much discussion over what is meant by the term “Lamb of God.” Many scholars argue that the meaning is grounded in a Jewish understanding of the lamb as a heroic figure who will destroy evil in the world. This meaning fits well with the synoptic depiction of John the Baptist as an apocalyptic preacher of judgment and with the imagery employed by John of Patmos in Revelation. It does not fit quite so well, however, with John’s depiction of the Baptist chiefly as a witness to Jesus. Other New Testament scholars believe that John’s testimony was shaped by an understanding of Jesus as the suffering servant depicted in the “servant songs” discussed above. Especially pertinent is the fourth servant song (Isaiah 52:13-53:12) in which the prophet states that “[The servant] opened not his mouth, like a sheep that is led to the slaughter and like a lamb before its shearers.” Isaiah 53:7. This argument assumes that John (the author of the Gospel) made the connection between these prophetic oracles and the story of Jesus. Although specific textual evidence is sparse for such an assertion, many of John’s allusions to the Hebrew Scriptures are intentionally more suggestive than explicit.

Some scholars favor identifying the Lamb of God with the Passover lamb. As Brown points out, the Western Fathers favored this interpretation. Ibid, p. 61. In favor of this interpretation, the Passover lamb is a central symbol in Israelite worship, whereas in the servant songs the lamb is but one isolated image. Passover symbolism is common throughout the Gospel of John. The slaying of the paschal lamb and its protective blood upon the doorposts of the Israelites fits well into the parallel between Jesus’ mission and the Exodus narrative. The problem arises with what follows, namely, that the Lamb of God is to take away the sin of the world. The Passover lamb was not understood as a sin offering and thus the shedding of its blood cannot be construed as making atonement for sin.

I tend favor the apocalyptic interpretation as most consistent with the Johannine tradition over all. Nevertheless, I believe that the suffering servant theme and the Passover tradition are also instructive and very much in the consciousness of the gospel writers. The fact that Jesus was crucified (according to John’s Gospel) the day before Passover at just the time when the Passover lambs would have been slain in preparation for the meal is suggestive. It seems to me that the death of the Passover lamb that shielded Israel from destruction is not so very inconsistent with the death of the servant in Isaiah whose ministry took the shape of suffering. Nor are these understandings inconsistent with the slain Lamb of God in Revelation who nonetheless is the only one mighty enough to open the seals to God’s future. Revelation 5:1-10.

Finally, we have the call of the first disciples. Two disciples of John the Baptist, one of which was Andrew the brother of Peter, follow Jesus in response to John’s testimony. They ask Jesus where he is staying and they wind up going to Jesus’ place of abode and “remaining” with him. Recall that beforehand John reported that he knew Jesus was the Lamb of God because he saw that the Spirit “remained with him.” The Greek word in both cases is the same and seems to indicate that, just as the Spirit remains or abides with Jesus, so Jesus’ disciples abide with him.  Through him they will also have access to the Spirit. Indeed, Jesus will make that very point later on when he tells his disciples, “Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me.” John 15:4. Again, the word translated as “abide,” is the same word translated as “remain” in our lesson. Abiding in Jesus seems to be all important. Perhaps that is why John’s gospel ends the way the Synoptics begin: with the disciples leaving their nets behind and following Jesus. See John 21:15-22.

 

Sunday, December 11th

THIRD SUNDAY OF ADVENT

Isaiah 35:1–10
Psalm 146:5–10
James 5:7–10
Matthew 11:2–11

PRAYER OF THE DAYStir up the wills of all who look to you, Lord God, and strengthen our faith in your coming, that, transformed by grace, we may walk in your way; 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 is languishing in Herod’s prison for speaking truth to power. There is often a price to be paid for such audacity. In three decades of ministry I have lost members in all three of the parishes I served because I said things they didn’t want to hear. I have also lost friends and I have relatives who no longer wish to speak to me on that account. That is painful. I will forever be asking myself whether I could have spoken more clearly, with greater temperance or with a higher degree of gentleness. Yet I cannot regret having spoken the truth, however ineptly I may have put it. Remaining silent is never an option. Those who fail to speak when the flag of falsehood flies unchallenged are as guilty as the ones who hoisted the banner in the first place. Hard truths must be spoken regardless of how they will be received and in spite of the consequences for the truth teller.

Of course, the discomfort I have occasionally experienced in truth speaking pales in comparison with John’s losing his freedom and, ultimately, his head. I have never received a threat of death or bodily injury for anything I have ever said. I would like to believe that is because we live in a society that values freedom of expression. But perhaps it is because I have failed to speak the truth as frequently and forcefully as I ought. I know that there have been many times when I failed to speak the truth at all in order to avoid far lesser consequences than John’s. I often wonder whether I would find the courage to speak truthfully in circumstances under which the truth would cost me dearly. Am I ready to go to prison for the truth or even to death? I fervently pray that I will never have to learn the answer to these questions!

One needs to take care in prophetic truth telling. My ability to recognize and articulate the truth is clouded by my own biases, prejudices and ignorance. Because I view the world through the eyes of white male privilege, I am sometimes blind to injuries and injustices taking place under my nose. Moreover, what at first blush appears to be an obvious case of injustice might become a good deal more complicated and nuanced in light of all the facts-some of which I might not be aware. Furthermore, the truth is more than the sum of the facts. Paul admonishes us to “speak[] the truth in love.” Ephesians 4:15. In a sense, that is redundant because, unless spoken in love, the truth is not really the truth. This is not to say that the truth cannot be spoken passionately, even angrily. But it must always be spoken with the ultimate intent to heal and reconcile. Words spoken to incite hatred, appeal to prejudice or foment violence are never true. Never.

In this age where civil discourse has broken down, arguments have given way to insults, racist ideology is making its way back into the mainstream and sexual violence by powerful predatory males is finding acceptance, the need for truthful speech is more urgent than ever before. The ideological demons need to be named and exorcised by the truth as we know it in Christ Jesus. Silence in such a time as this is tantamount to lying. Here’s a ruthlessly truthful yet compassionate poem about America which, though published in 1925, could have been written today.

Shine, Perishing Republic  

While this America settles in the mould of its vulgarity, heavily thickening
to empire
And protest, only a bubble in the molten mass, pops and sighs out, and the
mass hardens,
I sadly smiling remember that the flower fades to make fruit, the fruit rots
to make earth.
Out of the mother; and through the spring exultances, ripeness and decadence;
and home to the mother.
You making haste haste on decay: not blameworthy; life is good, be it stubbornly
long or suddenly
A mortal splendor: meteors are not needed less than mountains:
shine, perishing republic.
But for my children, I would have them keep their distance from the thickening
center; corruption
Never has been compulsory, when the cities lie at the monster’s feet there
are left the mountains.
And boys, be in nothing so moderate as in love of man, a clever servant,
insufferable master.
There is the trap that catches noblest spirits, that caught – they say –
God, when he walked on earth.

Source: Roan Stallion, Tamar and Other Poems, by Robinson Jeffers (c. 1925 by Boni & Liveright). Robinson Jeffers was born in 1887 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He was the son of Presbyterian minister and Biblical scholar, Dr. William Hamilton Jeffers. In 1902, Jeffers enrolled in Western University of Pennsylvania. When his family moved to California, he transferred to Presbyterian Occidental College from which he graduated at age 18. Jeffers traveled widely throughout Europe and was well versed in Biblical and classical languages. His poetry celebrates the grandeur of the natural world every bit as much as it denigrates human nature and achievement. Jeffers’ pessimistic view of America’s destiny undermined what was initially a favorable response from its artistic community. Nonetheless, he remains a formidable influence on American poetry to the present day. You can find out more about Robinson Jeffers and read more of his poems at the Poetry Foundation website.

Isaiah 35:1–10

For a quick overview of the Book of the Prophet Isaiah, see the Summary Article at enterthebible.org by Fred Gaiser, Professor of Old Testament at Luther Seminary. To summarize the summary: The first part of this long book (Chapters 1-39) contains messages of judgment and warning similar to those of the other 8th Century prophets against hypocritical worship, complacency, and the failure to act with justice for the poor. As illustrated by the readings for the last two weeks, the prophet also speaks poetically and with graphic imagery about God’s coming messianic kingdom. The second part of the book (Chapters 40-55) brings words of comfort and hope to the exiles in Babylonian captivity in the 6th Century B.C.E. This section contains the “suffering servant” passages we commonly read during Lent and Holy Week such as Isaiah 53. Part three (Chapters 56-65) is made up of warnings and promises for the Jewish community after its return to Jerusalem following the fall of Babylon in 538 B.C.E.

If only it were really that simple! In fact, all three sections underwent editing by other prophetic authors who composed their own material or wove oracles and sayings from other sources into the collection of sayings they had received. Further editing and inclusion of sources took place as these three sections were brought together into the Book of Isaiah we have today. Thus, for example, our reading from today, though included in the collection of sayings made up primarily of the 8th Century prophet Isaiah, is likely a product of the 6th Century or perhaps as late as the 5th Century B.C.E.  The parallels between this passage and similar verses in Second Isaiah such as Isaiah 55:12-13 suggest to some scholars a connection with the prophet of Second Isaiah or his disciples. Mauchline, John Isaiah 1-39, (c. 1962, SCM Press, Ltd.) p. 128. Some Hebrew scripture scholars also suggest that the prophetic utterance is even more recent dating from after the return of the Jews from Exile. They maintain that the “Holy Way” of which the prophet speaks is not only a return route from Babylon, but a multifaceted highway leading from the ends of the earth to Jerusalem by which Diaspora Jews (“the redeemed of the Lord”) may safely travel to the Holy City on pilgrimages. Kaiser, Otto, Isaiah 13-39, A Commentary, The Old Testament Library (c. 1974 SCM Press Ltd.) p. 362. A few authorities still maintain that this passage should be attributed to the prophet Isaiah of the 8th Century. They interpret the miraculous highway described therein as one for the return of the tribes of the Northern Kingdom conquered and carried into exile by the Assyrian Empire around 721-23 B.C.E. Mauchline, supra, p. 228. For reasons far too boring to discuss, I lean toward the late 6thto early 5th Century dating, but all of these theories are plausible.

As far as the canonical context goes, these jubilant verses of salvation, growth and renewal follow a withering oracle of judgment decreed against the nations in general and Edom in particular. Geographically, Edom was located south of Judea and the Dead Sea. See map. From the time of King Saul, Edom was subject to varying degrees of Israelite rule and suffered severe military reprisals for its efforts to win independence. Not surprisingly, then, Edom sided with the Babylonians in their final war with Judah and joined the Babylonian army in plundering Jerusalem. This perceived act of treachery was long remembered and the Judean thirst for revenge, chillingly expressed in the final verses of Psalm 137, was deeply impressed upon Israel’s psyche.

Though some scholars characterize Isaiah 34 as “apocalyptic,” I believe the label is misplaced. While the judgment in this chapter refers to cataclysmic cosmic events such as the stars of the heavens falling and the sky rolling up like a scroll, such hyperbolic language was common to prophets of the 8th Century when pronouncing God’s judgment within the confines of history. Furthermore, while the transformation of the desert into a garden-like highway free of intemperate weather and wild beasts is surely a miraculous event, it is no more historically improbable than Israel’s rescue at the Red Sea. I therefore believe that both chapters 34 and 35 have more in common with the earlier prophets’ preaching from the Exodus, Wilderness Wandering and Conquest of Canaan narratives than with the later apocalyptic writing such as that found in Daniel.

As with the lessons from the previous two weeks, these promises of salvation, reconciliation among the nations and world peace are spoken against the backdrop of an unstable and violent geopolitical landscape. The good news for such people “who lived in a land of deep darkness” (Isaiah 9:2) is that it does not have to be this way, nor will it always be so. In the very midst of all this chaos, injustice, meaningless bloodshed and cruelty, God is at work bringing to birth a new creation. Isaiah was no ivory tower theologian. He was deeply involved in the social, political and military issues faced by his country as Chapter 7 of Isaiah demonstrates. But the prophet and his later literary descendants recognized that the realities of violence, injustice and oppression were not the only and certainly not the final realities. They were convinced that the future belonged to the gentle reign of Israel’s God who alone is worthy of worship and ultimate loyalty.

Psalm 146:5–10

This is a psalm of praise celebrating the sovereignty of Israel’s God. Like the remaining psalms in the Psalter (Psalm 147-Psalm 150) the hymn begins and ends with the exclamation, “hallelujah” which is Hebrew for “Praise Yahweh!” More than likely, this psalm comes rather late in Israel’s history. There is no mention of the line of David or any hint of the monarchy in Israel. After a half millennia of disappointing kings whose leadership ultimately led to the destruction of Solomon’s temple, the siege of Jerusalem and the loss of the promised land, Israel was in no mood to put her trust in yet another royal figure:

Do not put your trust in princes,
in mortals, in whom there is no help.
When their breath departs, they return to the earth;
on that very day their plans perish.

Vss. 3-4. Instead, Israel is encouraged to put her trust in God. God is the one ruler who “sets the prisoners free.” Only “the Lord opens the eyes of the blind…lifts up those who are bowed down…” and “loves the righteous.”vss. 7-9. The only king worthy of our trust is the God of Israel.

The psalm concludes with the bold affirmation that the Lord will reign forever. The implication is that God has been reigning throughout history in spite of some severe setbacks for Israel and despite her precarious existence under foreign domination and occupation. This confidence is rooted in Israel’s past experience of God’s salvation for the poor and downtrodden in the Exodus, Wilderness Wanderings and the Conquest of the Land of Canaan. The return from Exile might also be in view here.

But it must also be said that Israel’s faith is future oriented. There is reflected here a hope, expectation and longing for the “Day of the Lord” when perfect justice and righteousness will be established. This hope is sometimes expressed in military terms, though even when Israel prevailed over her enemies in war, she always understood these victories as engineered by God. See, e.g.Deuteronomy 8:17Psalm 44:1-3. Yet from the time of the Judges to the time of the Maccabean rulers, Israel’s experience with political and military rulers had been a disappointment. Even the best of these leaders had failed to inaugurate anything like the new creation to which her prophets testified. Clearly, another kind of messiah was needed.

James 5:7–10

For an excellent overview of the book of James, see the Summary Article by James Boyce, Professor of New Testament and Greek at enterthebible.org.

Once again, the lectionary people have committed exegetical malpractice, cutting the reading off before the most important verse, that being James 5:11: “Indeed, we call those blessed who were steadfast…” Not in this country. We call those blessed who are “over comers,” “high achievers,” “result getters.” Too often, the church falls into step with these false values. Mission strategies too often aim at institutional growth and stability instead of faithful witness. Congregations judge their pastors on membership growth, giving levels and building projects instead of faithfulness to the work of sacramental ministry, preaching, teaching, evangelism and public witness. Congregations are judged by their ability to support the denomination’s programs and initiatives. Results, not steadfastness are the measure of a disciple’s worth in this twisted understanding of mission and church.

James points out that patience is a principal virtue for disciples of Jesus. There is nothing a disciple can or must do to make God’s kingdom come. God has that covered. Our task is to recognize the reign of Christ as the only genuine future there is and live accordingly. We don’t ask silly questions like: “How do I know that my contributions to hunger relief will bring any measurable improvement to people’s lives? How can I be sure that my efforts to achieve reconciliation will succeed? How can I know whether forgiveness of my enemy will only be seen as weakness and so invite more aggression?” The simple answer is that you don’t know and it doesn’t matter. Disciples feed the hungry, seek reconciliation and forgive their enemies because Jesus tells us too. That is enough reason. Let God worry about the results and how they fit into the future God is preparing for creation. That is not a bad message for those of us who have been waiting for two millennia for the consummation of God’s reign.

Matthew 11:2–11

Last week we met John the Baptist at the peak of his career baptizing the crowds coming to him from all over Judea. Now we meet him near the end of his career, languishing in Herod’s prison. We know so little about John’s religious outlook that it is difficult to know what expectations he may have had for Jesus. Like Jesus, John proclaimed that the kingdom of heaven was at hand and called for repentance. Matthew 3:2. He proclaimed the coming of one who would “baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire.” Matthew 3:11. The “you” here refers to the people as a whole rather than to individuals. Such fiery baptism would purge the people, separating the chaff from the wheat. It is in anticipation of this baptism of fire that John’s baptism of repentance is offered. So from Matthew’s perspective, John’s question seems to be whether Jesus is the one to bring about this baptism of fire that will cleanse the people of Israel, thereby making them fit for the coming reign of heaven.

There is good reason for John’s doubts. So far from separating the wheat from the chaff, Jesus associates with the chaff, the “sinners” and outcasts of his people. He touches people who are unclean and violates the Sabbath-hardly the sort of behavior you would expect from someone sent to purify the people of Israel.  Though Jesus has established a following, he also faces stiff and perhaps insurmountable opposition from the powerful Pharisees and the Sadducean leadership in Jerusalem. Moreover, John’s reward for baptizing and endorsing Jesus is prison and ultimately death. It seems that Jesus has some explaining to do.

As is his usual habit, Jesus does not give John’s messengers a direct answer. He merely tells the messengers to go back to John and tell him what they have seen. “You be the judge,” says Jesus. “The blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.” What’s your verdict? Vs. 5. That might sound like a no-brainer. Much of this comes straight from our lesson in Isaiah and the rest goes considerably beyond. If works like these cannot convince a skeptic, what can? And yet, Jesus goes on to add, “and blessed is anyone who takes no offence at me.’” Vs. 6.

What does Jesus mean by that? I suspect that part of this stems from John’s imprisonment. Jesus must be a poor sort of messiah if he cannot save his messenger, the promised Elijah, from the clutches of a penny ante thug like Herod Antipas. How will he fare against the Roman Empire? Jesus seems unaware or unconcerned that the jaws of powerful historical currents are closing in upon him. In view of all this, what difference do all these wonderful signs make? To what use is sight restored only to see more injustice and oppression? The relief Jesus provides to the individuals he touches means nothing if the rest of the vast creation remains untouched and enslaved to systemic sin. Even now the offense of the cross is in view and John’s question seems to be: “If Jesus winds up getting himself crucified, as seems likely, will there be another to whom we can look for salvation?” The answer is “no,” there will be no other and that is the core of the offense.

Jesus’ remarks about John’s role indicate clearly that something is dying with John. Notions of messianic salvation molded on tactics of violence, whether through military action or through imposition of morality, whether they are grounded in the scriptures or elsewhere, have no place in Jesus’ mission. Our efforts to build a moral society through just laws and procedures are doomed to failure. Whatever hopes we have for salvation through political or military might, through education and knowledge or through gradual human progress die on the cross. History is not something made by great societies or influential individuals. God is directing history toward his own chosen future which is revealed in Jesus’ resurrection. The way lies through the cross-suffering endured as a result of living the precepts of the Sermon on the Mount in a world that is, for now, hostile to the way of life it portrays. It bears repeating: it is not that the Sermon provides a blue print for a perfect church or a better society. Rather, it reflects the future Jesus promises and invites us to live in even now. What prophets like John could only foretell Jesus inaugurates-under the sign of the cross.

Sunday, January 10th

THE BAPTISM OF OUR LORD

Isaiah 43:1-7
Psalm 29
Acts 8:14-17
Luke 3:15-17, 21-22

Prayer of the Day: Almighty God, you anointed Jesus at his baptism with the Holy Spirit and revealed him as your beloved Son. Keep all who are born of water and the Spirit faithful in your service, that we may rejoice to be called children of God, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

“This is my son.” I have used those words more than a few times over the last two and one half decades, always with a deep sense of pride and joy. But now I cannot speak or hear them without feeling also an undertow of sadness. That is because I remember so well my own son’s deeply felt pride and joy in introducing to me to his son, my grandson, Parker. Twenty-four hours later my wife and I were holding my son as together we grieved Parker’s untimely death in the neonatal ICU. In so short a time, one life brought such outbursts of joy and such a tidal wave of grief. Two fathers, one mourning the loss of a son, the other powerless to comfort a son experiencing the most horrible thing that can happen to a parent. This is my son.

I cannot help but wonder if there is not a similar underlying sadness in the declaration of God the Father: “Thou art my beloved Son.” John tells us that God desires to share with us the same love that has existed eternally between the Father and the Son. How else can God love us other than to become human flesh? How else can the Word of God embrace and comfort us when all spoken words fail? And what shape other then the cross can such love possibly take in a world driven by unbelief, fear and hatred? The cross is the terrible cost of the Incarnation; the cost of Trinitarian Love born into a sinful world. This is my Son.

“A child is something else again,” as poet Yehuda Amichai tells us. We have no idea of all we let ourselves in for when we decide to have children. Still less can we predict the ripple effect that child’s life will have on the rest of the world. “A child is a missile into the coming generations,” Amichai says. She or he is our contribution to the ongoing saga of creation. We cannot foresee the joy or sorrow our children will bring with them into the world or experience themselves. Yet we know this much: our children will one day know death-that of their loved ones and their own. Their hearts will be broken, their bodies grow fail and their minds will become dim.

Into just such an existence God births the Son. And because the Son is God’s Son-the One whose innermost being is love, the Lamb of God incapable of violence, cruelty or cunning-he is particularly vulnerable to those most vicious characteristics of our world. The only question is whether the Son will continue to be the Son despite all that the world is about to inflict on him. The New Testament answers that question with a resounding “yes.” Jesus is God’s arrow of love shot into the world. That Trinitarian love proves stronger than the powers of evil even as they employ their heaviest weapons against it. Jesus lived, suffered and died cruelly in this world, but went on loving. He would not be sucked into the vortex of retribution that imprisons us. That is the “weakness of God” Paul recognizes as God’s greatest strength. It costs God dearly to hold all things together in Christ against the divisive forces threatening to rip creation apart. Our assurance is that God will never lose God’s grip. If the crucifixion of God’s beloved Son cannot cool the heat of God’s passionate, Trinitarian love for us, nothing can. Still today God the Father raises up to us his bloodied and wounded child saying to us, “This is my Son.”

Here is the poem by Yehuda Amichai I cited above.

A Child is Something Else Again

A child is something else again. Wakes up
in the afternoon and in an instant he’s full of words,
in an instant he’s humming, in an instant warm,
instant light, instant darkness.

A child is Job. They’ve already placed their bets on him
but he doesn’t know it. He scratches his body
for pleasure. Nothing hurts yet.
They’re training him to be a polite Job,
to say “Thank you” when the Lord has given,
to say “You’re welcome” when the Lord has taken away.

A child is vengeance.
A child is a missile into the coming generations.
I launched him: I’m still trembling.

A child is something else again: on a rainy spring day
glimpsing the Garden of Eden through the fence,
kissing him in his sleep,
hearing footsteps in the wet pine needles.
A child delivers you from death.
Child, Garden, Rain, Fate.

Yehuda Amichai, “A Child Is Something Else Again” from The Poetry of Yehuda Amichai. (c. 2015 by Yehuda Amichai, Translated By Chana Bloch and published by Farrar, Strauss & Giroux). Yehuda Amichai is one of Israel’s most prominent poets. He was born in Germany in 1924 but left with his family for Palestine in 1935. He fought in the 1948 Arab/Israeli war. His poems have been translated into English, French, German and Swedish. You can read more about Amichai and his poetry on the Poetry Foundation Website.

Isaiah 43:1-7

For a more thorough discussion of the Book of the Prophet Isaiah and the place of this reading within it, I refer you back to my post for the Epiphany of Our Lord, Sunday, January 3, 2016. Suffice to say that this Sunday’s lesson comes from Chapters 40-56 of Isaiah, which are attributed to a prophet who preached toward the end of the Babylonian exile of the Jews around 537 B.C.E., declaring to them God’s forgiveness and God’s promise to lead them back from exile in Babylon to their homeland in Palestine.

The cry “fear not” (Vs. 1) is a refrain heard throughout this section of Isaiah as it is also sounded throughout the Gospel of Luke. In contrast to the prophets of the 8th and 9th Centuries whose prophesies were more often than not declarations of judgment evoking fear, the glad tidings of release from exile and return to the land of promise banish fear and inspire hope. The term “redeemed” (Vs. 1) is a technical/legal term pertaining to ancient family law. It refers to the payment made to a third party releasing a relative from slavery or imprisonment for debt. Westermann, Claus, Isaiah 40-66, The Old Testament Library (c. 1969 SCM Press, Ltd.) p. 116. The promise to deliver Israel through waters and through rivers unmistakably evokes the Exodus miracle at the Red Sea and the crossing of the Jordan into Canaan under Joshua. Vs. 2.

“Because you are precious in my eyes, and honored, and I love you, I give men for you, peoples in exchange for your life.” Vs. 4. Of this verse Westermann goes on to say, “here we also have one of the most beautiful and profound statements of what the Bible means by ‘election.’ A tiny, miserable and insignificant band of uprooted men and women are assured that they-precisely they-are the people to whom God has turned in love; they, just as they are, are dear and precious in his sight.” Ibid. 118. The distinction here is not between Israelites and members of other nations as people, but rather between the glorious status of the reigning empires to whom this God prefers a band of exiles. This is, of course, consistent with the prophets’ and the psalmists’ insistence that God is particularly concerned with the widow, the orphan and the poor.

I have a fondness for these verses. As a matter of fact, this lesson was one of the readings for Sesle’s and my marriage service. I cannot remember what my thought process was in making this choice. In retrospect, however, I can attest that God has indeed been with us through some pretty rough waters and has gotten us out of some fiery predicaments over the years. Perhaps I was thinking that a marriage is a very fragile thing. It needs a lot of help to become strong, to remain healthy and to survive. I expect that the Babylonian exiles were probably feeling pretty fragile also.  Having lost the land they called home, the temple that was the symbol of God’s presence in their midst and the line of David that gave them a national identity, they were now living in the land of their conquerors as a community of foreigners. I expect that they were struggling to pass on their identity to a new generation of Jews who knew nothing first hand of Israel’s past glory and saw only the social and economic benefits of blending into the surrounding culture. Little by little their language was becoming a relic used only in worship. The prophet’s call for these defeated and demoralized exiles to make the long and dangerous journey back to a ruined land was a daunting challenge laden with risks and uncertainties. The odds against the returning exiles were even more formidable than those facing a marriage.

But the people of God do not make their decisions on the basis of statistical probabilities. They live their lives in the light of God’s promises. That is why we enter into marriage with promises to remain faithful until death parts us-knowing full well the statistics on divorce and separation. That is why I baptize infants of parents who promise to bring their children to the house of God, teach them the Lord’s Prayer and the Ten Commandments-even when I am fairly confident that they intend to do no such thing. It is God’s faithfulness to God’s promises that make the difference-not our own faithfulness which is fickle at best. So with each baptism I pray that the infant will pass through the baptismal flood to a new creation; be purified, but not consumed by the fire of God’s Spirit and be brought at last into the Sabbath rest of all people called by God’s name.  I continue to stay in touch with these families-sometimes to the extent of making a pest of myself-in order to keep alive their tenuous connection to the family of God. I do that because I believe that when God adopts someone and says to them, “You are my beloved,” God means it. So I strive to keep the door open as far as possible.

Psalm 29

Many commentators suggest that this psalm is an Israelite poet’s adaptation of an ancient Phoenician hymn praising Baal-Hadad, the Canaanite storm god. Weiser, Artur, The Psalms, The Old Testament Library (c. 1962 by SCM Press, Ltd.) p. 261; Brueggemann, Walter, The Message of the Psalm, Augsburg Old Testament Studies (c. 1984 by Augsburg Publishing House) p. 143. Other commentators have maintained 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. Nothing wrong with that. After all, Luther is said to have composed hymns from common songs.

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 embarrassing in the shadow of hurricanes, floods and earthquakes that damage homes and take lives. Are such events God’s doing? Does God send storms 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 part of our problem is 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 by her insurance plan, 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. 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!

Acts 8:14-17

I must admit that I don’t know what to make of this brief snippet from Acts. 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. But one of those things or both seem to have occurred here. Rather than trying to make theological sense out of this, I prefer simply to take this passage 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.

Luke 3:15-17, 21-22

A couple of things are worth noting here. First off, the Holy Spirit falls upon Jesus well after he is baptized by John and while he is praying. The voice from heaven addresses Jesus specifically in the second person. It is not even clear that John is still present when this occurs. In verses 15-17, where John disavows any messianic role, he also downplays the significance of his baptizing ministry. “I baptize you with water; but he who is mightier than I is coming, the thong of whose sandals I am unworthy to untie; he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire.” Vs. 16. Thus, John’s baptism, whatever it might have accomplished, did not confer upon those baptized God’s Holy Spirit. According to Luke, Jesus’ receipt of the Holy Spirit seems to have occurred separately from his baptism by John.

The other significant aspect of this text is its location. In both Mark and Matthew, Jesus is led by the Holy Spirit still sopping wet from his baptism out into the wilderness to face temptation by Satan. In Luke’s gospel, Jesus’ receipt of the Holy Spirit is followed by a lengthy genealogy tracing Jesus’ ancestry all the way back to Adam. One cannot help but see in this the foreshadowing of what will occur in the second chapter of Acts where the Spirit falls upon the disciples who then preach the gospel in tongues understandable to a multitude of people from all corners of the known world. Jesus will be the conduit through which the Spirit of God will reach all peoples. Just as Jesus begins his ministry “full of the Holy Spirit” (Luke 4:1), so the church at Pentecost will begin its ministry filled with the Holy Spirit. If we would read Luke rightly, we need to keep the Book of Acts on the horizon. The same Spirit that animates Jesus’ ministry in Luke’s gospel will likewise animate the mission of the church in his Book of Acts.

“The heaven was opened,” is a term used frequently in apocalyptic literature. Vs. 21. The Greek word used by Luke translated “to open” here is milder than the term “ripped open” used in Mark’s gospel to describe the descent of the Holy Spirit upon Jesus. Mark 1:10. In both cases, however, the rending of the heavens is a literary device used to announce the radical intervention of God. In the 64th chapter of Isaiah, the prophet prays, “O that thou wouldst rend the heavens and come down…” Isaiah 64:1. That is precisely what is happening here as Jesus prays. The heavens are rent and the Spirit of God descends upon Jesus through whom God will now act.

What do all these texts have to say about baptism? The take away for me is that, when all is said and done, this is God’s act. We have no idea what we are unleashing when we stir the waters of the baptismal font over which the Spirit hovers and take the creative Word of God upon our lips. We can no more channel the power of God’s Spirit than we can control the raw energy of a storm. At most, our worship makes room for the Holy Spirit to enter in. But the Spirit blows where it wills.

Sunday, December 13th

THIRD SUNDAY OF ADVENT

Zephaniah 3:14-20
Isaiah 12:2-6
Philippians 4:4-7
Luke 3:7-18

PRAYER OF THE DAY: Stir up the wills of your faithful people, Lord God, and open our ears to the preaching of John, that, rejoicing in your salvation, we may bring forth the fruits of repentance; 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 is an enigmatic figure in the New Testament. I read a commentator recently who lamented the fact that we have lost the “historical” John in the mists of history and all that remains of him is the gospel portrayal of a literary character whose only role is to magnify the ministry of Jesus. Would that we were all so “lost!” Would that all of us disciples could die so thoroughly to self that others see in us only Jesus magnified. Would that we were a people whose lives are a total mystery apart from Jesus’ life, death and resurrection. We are never more real than when our lives are lived out of our relationship with Jesus. That beats the hell out of whatever “historical” existence there might be for us.

In last Sunday’s gospel John announced the Lord’s coming and urged us, in the words of Isaiah the prophet, to “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.” Luke 3:4. This Sunday he tells us concretely what that looks like. In response to John’s bold proclamation that the reign of God is immanent, the people begin to ask “what shall we do?” vss. 10; 12; and 14. The answer is starkly simple. Live now as though God’s reign has already come. Share your food and clothing. Stop exploiting your career and social standing to enrich yourself at the expense of others. This is not just whinny exhortation or even a cry for social justice. It is the good news of the arrival of God’s reign. Vs. 18. One either believes John and begins orientating one’s life toward the priorities and patterns of the world to come; or one rejects John’s good news and continues living under the old order of hierarchy, patriarchy, class distinctions and violent oppression.

Advent is that one time during the church year when the radical nature of the good news threatens to break through all of our ecclesiastical efforts to domesticate it. I have listened ad nauseam to theologians in my own Lutheran tradition harp on the paradoxical relationship between the “already” and the “not yet” in the reign of God proclaimed by Jesus. What irks me is not so much their pointing out the tension between these two seemingly contradictory assertions concerning the kingdom. That is real enough. My objection is that we Lutherans have always laid far too much emphasis on the “not yet.” Announcing the “already” rattles us. We are suspicious of the unexpected and disruptive. Revolution terrifies us. Being American protestant ever white and ever polite progressives, we prefer gradual, evolutionary, incremental change. The Sermon on the Mount is fine as long as it can safely be understood as an unattainable ideal designed to drive us to the despair of ever attaining it and to send us fleeing to the throne of grace for a dispensation from it. Or we can tolerate it as God’s expressed intention for life in the “not yet” side of things, but certainly not applicable to the “real world” as we now experience it. For now, we must be satisfied with modest tweaks to late stage capitalism and a kinder, gentler nationalism because the sort of world in which the Sermon on the Mount can actually be practiced is “not yet.”

John the Baptist doesn’t see it that way. For him, there is no “not yet.” It’s “already,” period. Why else would you empty your closet to clothe a stranger or raid your refrigerator to feed somebody you don’t even know? Why would a wealthy tax collector or a soldier of the king begin to doubt the legitimacy of their life’s work? Only because the “already” is eclipsing the “not yet.” John’s preaching made the impending reign of God more real to his hearers than the world driven by survival of the fittest. John is living in the “already.” Let the “not yet” be damned.

The “already” is meant to be lived in the midst of the “not yet.” To be sure, “already” takes the shape of the cross as long as it is still “not yet.” To a world thoroughly conformed to the “not yet,” the lives of those living in the “already” are something of a mystery. They seem impractical, ineffective and nonsensical. Yet if you are convinced that God’s reign is immanent and has indeed already broken into the present moment, conforming your heart and behavior to that reality is about the most pragmatic step you can take.

Here is a poem by Wendell Berry that captures what I think it must be like to live the “already” in the heart of the “not yet.”

Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front

Love the quick profit, the annual raise,
vacation with pay. Want more
of everything ready-made. Be afraid
to know your neighbors and to die.
And you will have a window in your head.

Not even your future will be a mystery
any more. Your mind will be punched in a card
and shut away in a little drawer.

When they want you to buy something
they will call you. When they want you
to die for profit they will let you know.

So, friends, every day do something
that won’t compute.
Love the Lord.

Love the world.
Work for nothing.

Take all that you have and be poor.

Love someone who does not deserve it.

Denounce the government and embrace
the flag.
Hope to live in that free
republic for which it stands.

Give your approval to all you cannot
understand.
Praise ignorance, for what man
has not encountered he has not destroyed.

Ask the questions that have no answers.

Invest in the millenium.
Plant sequoias.

Say that your main crop is the forest
that you did not plant,
that you will not live to harvest.

Say that the leaves are harvested
when they have rotted into the mold.

Call that profit.
Prophesy such returns.

Put your faith in the two inches of humus
that will build under the trees
every thousand years.

Listen to carrion — put your ear
close, and hear the faint chattering
of the songs that are to come.

Expect the end of the world.
Laugh.

Laughter is immeasurable.
Be joyful
though you have considered all the facts.

So long as women do not go cheap
for power, please women more than men.

Ask yourself: Will this satisfy
a woman satisfied to bear a child?
Will this disturb the sleep
of a woman near to giving birth?

Go with your love to the fields.

Lie down in the shade.
Rest your head
in her lap.
Swear allegiance
to what is nighest your thoughts.

As soon as the generals and the politicos
can predict the motions of your mind,
lose it.
Leave it as a sign
to mark the false trail, the way
you didn’t go.

Be like the fox
who makes more tracks than necessary,
some in the wrong direction.

Practice resurrection.

From The Mad Farmer Poems, (c. 2008 by Wendell Berry). Wendell Berry is a poet, novelist, farmer and environmental activist. You can read more about him and his many works at the Poetry Foundation website.

Zephaniah 3:14-20

The book of Zephaniah is one of the twelve Minor Prophets. They are so called not because they are any less important than Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel and Daniel (Major Prophets), but because these prophetic collections are much smaller. Zephaniah is only three chapters long. The name, “Zephaniah” means “Yahweh

Hides” or “Yahweh is concealed.” “Sophonias (Zephaniah),” Catholic Encyclopedia (c. 2012 by Kevin Knight). In the opening verses, Zephaniah’s ancestry is traced through Hezekiah. Zephaniah 1:1. It is not known whether this reference is to King Hezekiah who reigned over Judah between 715 B.C.E. and 687 B.C.E.  Hezekiah was one of the few kings that gets a favorable rating from the books of Kings and Chronicles. The prophets Isaiah and Micah both were active during his reign and it seems that he was somewhat receptive to their preaching. According to the opening verses of the book, Zephaniah’s preaching took place during the reign of King Josiah from 640 B.C.E. through 609 B.C.E. It is therefore possible that Zephaniah could have been sired by Hezekiah through one of his concubines. On the other hand, because Hezekiah was such a well-regarded king, it would not be unusual for the name to become popular. The Hezekiah named as Zephaniah’s father is not identified as a king or given any royal appellation. Consequently, Zephaniah’s royal lineage is not a foregone conclusion.

It is also thought that Zephaniah’s prophetic ministry must have come prior to the reforms introduced by King Josiah ten years into his reign that are reported in II King 23:4-25. Zephaniah criticized severely the idolatrous worship of Baal and Asherah in Jerusalem, all traces of which Josiah rooted out of the city in the course of his restoration and purification of worship at the Temple. Zephaniah 1:4-6. Zephaniah was also unsparing in his criticism of “the officials and the king’s sons.” Zephaniah 1:8. It seems unlikely that he would have leveled such criticisms during a period of time when the King was implementing the very reforms Zephaniah was demanding. Thus, it is likely that the prophecies we have from the prophet Zephaniah date from between 640 B.C.E and 630 B.C.E., the first decade of Josiah’s reign prior to the institution of his reforms.

The book can be divided into three sections corresponding to its three chapters. The first chapter focuses chiefly on the corruption of the royal court and priesthood in Jerusalem. Zephaniah threatens the nation with divinely wrought destruction for its sins. In the second chapter the prophet expands the threat of judgment to Israel’s enemies. The third chapter begins with what appears to be further indictments against Judah, but the prophet’s tone changes abruptly after chapter five. Beginning with Zephaniah 3:6, the prophet begins to prophecy judgment against “the nations,” and words of comfort directed to Jerusalem. This is the section from which our lesson for Sunday is taken. The prophet promises that God will rescue Judah, restore her fortunes and defeat her enemies. Instead of bringing a judgment of destruction, God now declares a removal of destruction. Some scholars have explained this abrupt change by attributing these verses to a prophet other than Zephaniah who preached during or shortly after the period of the Babylonian Exile. Montague, George T., Zephaniah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Lamentations and Obadiah, Old Testament Reading Guide (c. 1961 by Confraternity of Christian Doctrine) pp. 22-23. This is quite possible. Like other prophetic books, Zephaniah is a compilation of prophetic utterances given at different times under different circumstances. As was the case with both Isaiah and Jeremiah, it is possible that the work of one of Zephaniah’s disciples or an editor might have found its way into the book. But I am doubtful for the following reasons: First, there is there is no mention of Jerusalem’s destruction, Babylon, the Exile or the return from exile. Second, the theme of the nations being cleansed and united by the glory of God shining forth from Jerusalem is part and parcel of the earlier prophecies of Isaiah. This week’s lesson reflects these same themes that are entirely consistent with the earlier prophetic tradition of Isaiah and so fit into Zephaniah’s period of ministry in the late seventh century.

God’s promise to “live in the midst [of the people]” reflects the longing of Advent. Like Israel, the church is a people formed by its longing for God’s reign. We struggle between the reality in which we live on the one hand that is characterized by violence, injustice and cruelty and on the other hand an alternate reality proclaimed to us by the scriptures in which God’s will is done on earth as in heaven. For us the latter reality is the more real and compelling even though we cannot see it yet.

Isaiah 12:2-6

As I have pointed out before, the book of the prophet Isaiah is regarded by most Hebrew Scripture scholars to be the work of three different prophets. Chapters of Isaiah 1-39 are attributed in the main to Isaiah the prophet who lived and prophesied in the 8th Century during the reigns of Judean kings Jotham, Ahaz and Hezekiah. Chapters of Isaiah 40-55 are attributed to a prophet who preached toward the end of the Babylonian exile of the Jews, declaring to them God’s forgiveness and God’s promise to lead them back from exile to their homeland in Palestine. Chapters of Isaiah 56-66 are the words of a prophet addressing the Jews who in fact returned to Palestine and were struggling to rebuild their community under difficult circumstances. But this neat three part division is still a little too simplistic. All three prophetic collections underwent editing, revisions and additions in the course of composition. Consequently, there are many sections of First Isaiah (Isaiah 1-39) that probably belong to a prophet of a much later time. So it appears that the words from our lesson, which fall within the chapters attributed to First Isaiah of the 8th Century, are more likely from a later time. Most likely, they were placed by the editor as a poetic doxology to the collection of prophetic utterances by Isaiah in the first eleven chapters of the book. Rolf Jacobson, Professor of Old Testament from Luther Seminary in St. Paul, M.N. attributes these verses to the prophet who gave us Second Isaiah (Isaiah 40-55). See Commentary on Workingpreacher.org. I believe they also fit into the context of disillusionment and despair following the return from exile addressed by Third Isaiah (Isaiah 56-66). There does not appear to be enough in terms of historical references to date it with any certainty. The call to praise God and acknowledge God as savior is naturally appropriate for Advent which looks back to Jesus who came and forward to the Christ who is to come.

Philippians 4:4-7

As I pointed out last week, the letter to the Philippians is not one, but actually three different letters sent by Paul to the church at Phillipi at different times. These letters were collected together and over time became integrated as a single document. The three letters in their likely chronological order are as follows:

  • 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 rival missionaries who require the circumcision of Gentiles)

See the post for Sunday, December 6, 2015 for more particulars on this letter.

As was the case last week, so this week the reading is from the second of these three letters and constitutes its conclusion. Paul reminds the Philippian church that the Lord is near and encourages them to rejoice. Once again, it needs to be emphasized that for followers of Jesus the announcement that “The Lord is at hand” (Vs. 5) does not conjure up images of terror, divine wrath and damnation. It elicits rejoicing. Advent is above all a season of joy. We do not face the future with dread. We look to tomorrow with hope, but not out of some blind optimism that everything will work out in the end. No, our hope is grounded in the promise of Jesus’ return to reign in gentleness and peace.

Luke 3:7-18

Last week’s lesson introduced John as the voice crying, “in the wilderness, prepare the way of the Lord.” This week, we come face to face with John the preacher. Luke’s account of John’s preaching differs significantly from the Gospel of Matthew in one respect. In Matthew, John addresses only the Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism with the scathing words: “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” In Luke, this stinging rebuke is directed at the “multitudes that came to be baptized.” Vs. 7. We don’t know much about John’s audience. Luke does not tell us who was among the multitudes. We learn a few verses later, however, that there were soldiers and tax collectors among them. We can safely assume that the folks who sought John out and came to receive his baptism were looking for a renewed Israel, perhaps along the lines of Zephaniah’s vision. That would have involved an end to corruption within the priesthood and worship in the Temple-just as rampant in John’s day as in that of Zephaniah. They might also have been looking for restoration of Israel as a great kingdom. Or they may have expected some miraculous transformation of the present world into a world in which Israel would be glorified rather than downtrodden. Again, this last expectation would have been consistent with the hope expressed in our reading from Zephaniah. But whatever they were expecting, John makes clear to them that the change they are hoping for must begin with them. Submitting to John’s baptism without repentance would be an empty and futile ritual exercise. It is not enough to be a descendent of Abraham (or a confirmed Lutheran). It is fruits, not roots that matter.

Understandably, the people respond, “Well then, what are we to do? What are these fruits you are talking about?” John does not have to look far for an answer. His reply concerning the fruits of repentance is squarely within the framework of prophetic tradition. See, e.g. Isaiah 58:1-9:

Shout out, do not hold back!
Lift up your voice like a trumpet!
Announce to my people their rebellion,
to the house of Jacob their sins.
Yet day after day they seek me
and delight to know my ways,
as if they were a nation that practiced righteousness
and did not forsake the ordinance of their God;
they ask of me righteous judgments,
they delight to draw near to God.
“Why do we fast, but you do not see?
Why humble ourselves, but you do not notice?”
Look, you serve your own interest on your fast day,
and oppress all your workers.
Look, you fast only to quarrel and to fight
and to strike with a wicked fist.
Such fasting as you do today
will not make your voice heard on high.
Is such the fast that I choose,
a day to humble oneself?
Is it to bow down the head like a bulrush,
and to lie in sackcloth and ashes?
Will you call this a fast,
a day acceptable to the LORD?
Is not this the fast that I choose:
to loose the bonds of injustice,
to undo the thongs of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
and to break every yoke?
Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,
and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover them,
and not to hide yourself from your own kin?
Then your light shall break forth like the dawn,
and your healing shall spring up quickly;
your vindicator shall go before you,
the glory of the LORD shall be your rear guard.
Then you shall call, and the LORD will answer;
you shall cry for help, and he will say, Here I am.

Repentance that is all about ritual formalities like fasting, wearing of sackcloth and ashes falls far short of what the Lord requires. Repentance is turning back to the Lord and one cannot do that without turning toward the sister or brother in need. One of the most ancient and urgent commands in the Mosaic law is that “You shall open wide your hand to the poor in the land.”  Deuteronomy 15:11.

The temptation here is to jump too quickly from John’s admonitions here to a more generalized charity that reduces the poor to an abstraction. Note well that both the prophetic passage from Isaiah and John’s preaching is directed toward Israel, not the world at large. These proclamations make sense only to people living in a covenant relationship with the God of Israel such as Israel itself or disciples of Jesus who are united with that God through baptism. This is particularly important for us American Christians to keep in mind as we frequently confuse America with the people of God. The Bible was written to shape the life of the church, not to reform the structures of American society. Furthermore, the sharing that John speaks about is to take place within the frame work of a covenant people called out of the rest of the world to be a “light to the nations.” So the “poor” here are not the starving masses, but the fellow in the next pew who lost his job and cannot afford coats for his kids. John is not asking us to immerse ourselves in the war against poverty. He just wants the extra coat in our closet for the brother without one.

I might be criticized here for lack of a social conscience. One irate person who heard me make this point responded, “Don’t you think Christians should be concerned about social justice?” My response was that I think everyone should be concerned about social justice whether they are Christians or not. But social justice is not enough. Jesus did not merely feed the hungry. He invited them to the messianic banquet. Jesus did not simply make donations for the care of lepers. He touched them. The prophet Isaiah did not call upon Israel to build homeless shelters. He told them to “bring the homeless into your house.” There are disciples of Jesus who do just that. I know, for example, of families that have taken on several foster children, some of them with serious emotional problems and physical disabilities, all in an effort to provide for them a secure and loving home. One example of precisely this thing is Reba Place Fellowship in Evanston, Illinois. This is an intentional Christian community dedicated to “freely sharing life and resources with one another and with our neighbors in order to demonstrate God’s peace and justice in the world.” I encourage you to check out their website.

I have been told repeatedly that, while these individual efforts are commendable, the problems of homelessness and poverty are systemic and that we need systemic reform of one sort or another to solve them. That might well be true, but so is the converse. Systemic change will never overcome poverty as long as we continue to view the poor as social problems to be solved rather than as sisters and brothers precious both to God and to us. The church is called to be a community where the poor are welcomed as valued partners rather than tolerated as burdens. Let me add here that I think we could be and should be doing a far better job with this. That is one reason why we need to hear John’s preaching so much.

How, then, does John prepare the way of the Lord? Our lesson concludes, noting that “With these and many other exhortations, [John] preached good news to the people.” But in what sense is this good news? John tells us of this “coming one” that “his winnowing fork is in his hand to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” This is an unsettling image, but maybe that is the point. Can you really expect to be baptized with fire and not get burned? If repentance is about a radical change of direction, it stands to reason that some things are going to have to be left behind-like the notion that you can ride into the kingdom of God on the proper pedigree. Some things must be given up-like the extra food in the pantry and the extra coats in the closet. But the promise of health is well worth the pain of the cure. The judgment John proclaims is not one of doom, but of promise. The unquenchable fire is for purifying, refining and renewing-not for destroying. That flame is lit each time Jesus calls another disciple to follow him. Throughout the way that leads finally to the cross, that flame burns to strengthen, purify and refine the new creation.

I think a word or two should be said also about John’s words to the soldiers and the tax collectors. In all likelihood, the soldiers belonged to Herod Antipas who ruled Galilee under leave from Rome. Ellis, Earl E., The Gospel of Luke, The New Century Bible Commentary (c. 1974 by Marshall, Morgan & Scott) p. 90. We should not think of these folks as disciplined members of an armed service doing a patriotic duty for the good of their country under a strict code of military ethics. These “soldiers” to which Luke refers, were more like armed thugs hired to protect a local warlord. Their wages were meager, but that did not matter because they had a license to take whatever they wished from the local population to supplement their income. Caird, G.B., Saint Luke, The Pelican New Testament Commentaries (c. 1963 by G.B. Caird, pub. by Penguin Books, Ltd.) p. 73. The tax collectors were not civil servants. They were free agents who, through payment, patronage or some other means obtained the right to collect taxes for Rome within a given geographical area. They were told generally the amount they needed to collect for Rome and whatever else they could manage to extort was their living. Schweizer, Eduard, The Good News According to Luke (c. 1984 by John Knox Press) p. 73. The tax collectors most frequently encountered by Jesus, and probably John as well, were at the very bottom of the food chain. They were Jews recruited by regional tax collectors to do the dirty work of extracting revenue from their neighbors. Naturally, they also had to make a living and so collected a premium of their own. Thus, one must wonder how John could expect a soldier of Herod to make do with his wages or a tax collector to extract no more than what his principal required. In both cases, obedience would result in poverty.

Some scholars have suggested that Luke, who was writing in a time long after these events took place, was projecting into the story a more respectable means of taxation and a more developed military ethic than existed in the time of Jesus. In other words, we have an anachronism. I don’t find this explanation convincing. Luke consistently takes a very radical view of discipleship throughout his gospel. Sometimes the shape of discipleship is poverty, persecution and even death. I believe therefore that John knew full well that he was calling the soldiers and the tax collectors to a life that would put them at odds with their professions and their loyalties. But, once again, like the priceless pearl or the treasure in the field, the reign of God is worth letting go of everything else to pursue. Along with the rest of the multitude, the soldiers and tax collectors are promised a baptism with the Holy Spirit and with fire.

Sunday, December 6th

SECOND SUNDAY OF ADVENT

Malachi 3:1-4
Luke 1:68-79
Philippians 1:3-11
Luke 3:1-6

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

This Sunday’s lessons promise justice. The prophet Malachi assures Israel that the Lord will appear as a refiner’s fire purifying the earth for a new age. Zechariah sings of the day when God will deliver Israel from her enemies that she might “serve him without fear, in holiness and righteousness…” Paul expresses his confidence that God, who began a good work in us, “will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ.” John the Baptist proclaims the leveling of mountains and the exaltation of valleys at the advance of the One who is to come. That’s all good news-until you start thinking about it.

Malachi sounds this sobering cautionary note: “but who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears?” If the reign of God were to come tomorrow, I am not at all convinced that I would be prepared to meet it. The problem with heaven is that it will be hell for those of us who are not ready to live there. How many of us really want a creation in which all things are reconciled in Christ Jesus? All is a big word. I have no desire to be reconciled with Keith, the kid who bullied me to the point where I hated getting up in the morning and did not feel safe even in my own back yard. Not that I wish him any harm. I’m over that. In fact, I was glad to learn that Keith now has a flourishing dental practice in my home town. I think it’s great that he ended up in a profession where he can both satisfy his sadistic impulses and benefit society. Would that all the world’s sociopaths were so well integrated. I hope he lives long and prospers, but I don’t particularly want to see him again. Then, of course, there are the notorious evildoers: Hitler, Stalin, Osama Bin Landin, Bull Connor and others in the scoundrel’s hall of fame. Heaven would hardly be heaven if these folks were parading about in the presence of their victims. I cannot imagine or accept their reconciliation. Clearly, they must be burned away in the refining process. Justice requires no less-or at least that is so for justice as I understand it.

The trouble is, I don’t understand it. My perception of justice is too self-centered and myopic. I cannot see what is truly just from God’s perspective. For that reason, we all need to be careful about demanding justice. Sometimes you get what you ask for and it is not what you expect. The line between good and evil does not run neatly between righteous and unrighteous people, good nations and evil nations. That line runs through the middle of every human heart. The evil we hate and deplore in others is often a reflection of what lies in the depths of our own hearts. The cleansing fire of God’s justice comes not merely to eliminate people I don’t like. It comes to deal with the grudges I can’t let go of; resentment of enemies I can’t find it in my heart to forgive; my lust for recognition that never seems to be satisfied; and the lies I tell myself about myself in order for me to live with myself. Justice has a lot of refining to do with my own soul before I can live justly under God’s reign.

I am beginning to understand the Roman Catholic doctrine of purgatory. Though it has little or no support in the scriptures, it makes good sense. Clearly, it will take more than a life time to purge my soul and make me capable of sharing in the love of the Father for the Son and for the rest of creation. But whether I must undergo thousands of years of purging or whether I am changed “in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye,” it amounts to the same thing, namely, change. After undergoing such a radical transformation, after being refined in the fierce fire of God’s judgment, after being cleansed of the pride, resentment, anxiety and envy that have shaped so much of my life, will there by anything left of me? Is there enough of the mind of Christ in me to constitute a new person?

Saint Paul gives me some comfort here with his assurance that God, who began a good work in me at baptism, will bring that good work to completion in the Day of Jesus Christ. God will see to it that God’s eternal destiny for me (not necessarily my own hopes for eternity) will be fulfilled. The man I might become after passing through the refining fire of God’s judgment may not be recognizable to me. But he will recognize the Lord who has been present to him throughout his lifetime. And that, Saint John tells us, is the stuff of eternal life. Perhaps that is why Jesus told us in last week’s gospel not to fear the dissolution of creation and to raise our heads in hope even as the signs of our own destruction are all around. However fearful the judgment might be, it is a cleansing judgment, a refining fire, a wound designed to heal. It is the storm that necessarily precedes the calm.

Here’s a poem by Leonora Speyer.

Squall

The squall sweeps gray-winged across the obliterated hills,
And the startled lake seems to run before it;
From the wood comes a clamor of leaves,
Tugging at the twigs,
Pouring from the branches,
And suddenly the birds are still.
Thunder crumples the sky,
Lightning tears at it.

And now the rain!
The rain—thudding—implacable—
The wind, reveling in the confusion of great pines!

And a silver sifting of light,
A coolness;
A sense of summer anger passing,
Of summer gentleness creeping nearer—
Penitent, tearful, Forgiven!

Malachi 3:1-4

Nothing is known about the prophet Malachi, whose name in Hebrew means, “My messenger.” The prophet probably lived between 500 and 450 B.C.E. after the Jewish exiles from Babylon had returned and rebuilt the temple in Jerusalem. For more information about the prophetic book bearing his name, I refer you to the Summary Article by Michael Rogness, Professor of Preaching and Professor Emeritus of Homiletic at Luther Seminary, St. Paul, M.N.

Malachi was fiercely dedicated to the reconstructed temple and highly critical of the priesthood he accused of corrupting its worship. Malachi also criticizes the people of Israel for their failure to support the temple, for offering sick and blemished animals for sacrifice and for a general lack of faithfulness to Israel’s covenant with her God. In the concluding chapter Malachi answers his critics who claim that God has abandoned Israel. God is sending “my messenger” before him who will “suddenly come to his temple.” Vs. 1. The question is not whether God will come, but whether Israel will be able to stand in God’s presence. Vs. 2. “For [God] is like a refining fire,” a “purifier of silver.” This God will “purify the sons of Levi and refine them like gold and silver, till they present right offerings to the Lord.” Vss. 2-3.

The news is good in the sense that the ultimate result will be that “Judah and Jerusalem will be pleasing to the Lord as in the days of old and as in former times.”  Vs. 4. Yet the purification process promises to be painful. The refining fire will consume all the dross and impurities from Israel. There will be a terrible cost for this purification. So also John is sent to “preach a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sin.” The intent is to save Israel, but salvation cannot come without a painful transformation. That continues to be the case. To be baptized into Jesus Christ is to be baptized into Christ’s death. We are called daily to die to sin and rise up again to a new life of faith in Jesus. In the refining fire of the church, a community dedicated to following Jesus, we learn the hard lessons of forgiveness, compassion, faithfulness and hospitality. In other words, we are sanctified and made holy. It is a slow process, a painful process, a process that will not be finished this side of the resurrection and not by us. See Comments on Philippians 1:3-11 below. Yet it is a joyful process in which we discover just how wonderful it is to be a creature reflecting the glory of his or her Creator.

Luke 1:68-79

You need to know the story behind this song before you can understand it. These are the words of Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist. He was a priest of the temple in Jerusalem in the time just prior to Jesus’ birth. When his division was on duty, he was selected to enter into the temple and burn incense before the holy of holies. While he was performing this duty, an angel appeared to him and told him that his wife, Elizabeth, would bear a son and instructed him to name the child John. Understandably, Zechariah was incredulous. He was an old man and his wife was also long past child bearing years. They had never been able to have children before. So Zechariah asked the angel, “How shall I know this?” The angel identified himself as Gabriel, “who stand in the presence of God.” Gabriel told Zechariah that he would be unable to speak until the birth of the child because he doubted this good news. So it was that Zechariah emerged from the temple speechless. Luke 1:5-20.

Elizabeth conceived and bore a son. Her relatives and neighbors began calling the infant “Zechariah” after his father, but Elizabeth corrected them: “Not so,” says Elizabeth. “His name is John.” Everyone protests that no one in her family has ever borne that name. Then they turn to Zechariah who would have had the final say in this matter. Much to their surprise, Zechariah asks for a writing tablet and inscribes on it these words for all to see: “His name is John.” At that instant, Zechariah’s tongue is set free and he breaks forth in the song that is our psalm for the day. Luke 1:57-66.

Though the birth of John is the occasion for this joyous song, the song’s focus is on the mighty works and promises of God. The promises made to Abraham and to David are evoked by Zechariah’s words. The “horn of salvation” (Vs. 69) is a symbol of might. See Deuteronomy 33:17. The covenantal language throughout the song unites the promises made to Abraham with those sworn to David. Vss. 70-73. The “horn of salvation” raised up within the house of David will make the Abrahamic promises of blessing to all peoples a reality. This “horn of salvation” is Jesus. John’s identity and role is spelled out in this hymn only in relation to Jesus before whom John will go as a prophet of the Most High. John will prepare the way by giving people “knowledge of salvation in the forgiveness of their sins.” Vs. 77.

A couple of things are worth noting here. First, there is an interesting interplay between Zachariah’s inability to speak and Elizabeth’s speech concerning the naming of her son. Elizabeth’s naming of John is totally ignored by her relatives and neighbors who turn to Zechariah-who has no ability to speak! It is as though poor Elizabeth has no voice. But when the speechless man gives his full support to the voiceless woman, this beautiful song of liberation bursts forth, promising an end to oppression and violence, the dawn of a new day and a path that leads to peace. This is not the first time Luke’s gospel gives a prominent voice to women. We will see throughout the readings we encounter this year a deep concern for women and an intentional effort to give them a voice in the gospel narrative.

Second, it is important to note the wealth of imagery in this song taken from the Hebrew Scriptures. I cannot emphasize enough how critical it is to read the New Testament in light of those Hebrew Scriptures. Unless you fully appreciate the wealth of promises, the richness of hope and the textured narrative embedded in the Hebrew Scriptures, your view of the New Testament will necessarily be truncated and distorted. I am convinced that the most heretical book ever published is the New Testament printed apart from the Hebrew Scriptures.

Philippians 1:3-11

A word or two about Paul’s letter to the Philippians is warranted since we will be hearing lessons from that book this week and next. The first thing to note is that the letter to the Philippians is not one, but actually three different letters sent by Paul to the church at Philippi at different times. These letters were collected together and over time became integrated as a single document. The three letters in their likely chronological order are as follows:

ž  Phil A = Phil 4:10-20   (a short “Note of Thanksgiving” for monetary gifts Paul received from the Philippians)

ž  Phil B = Phil 1:1 – 3:1; 4:4-7; (a “Letter of Friendship” written from prison, probably in Ephesus)

ž  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)

It is impossible to determine the timing of the first letter other than to say that it was between the start of Paul’s missionary activity beginning around 45 A.D. and his arrest in Jerusalem around 60 A.D. There is no mention of Paul’s imprisonment in this letter. It appears that the Philippian congregation sent a gift of money in support of Paul’s mission work in Ephesus by the hand of one of its members, Epaphroditus. This evidently was not the first time the congregation had sent support to Paul and he is overwhelmed by this church’s generosity. Though Paul does not depend on material support from his congregations, knowing that God will supply his needs, he nevertheless rejoices in such support as it benefits his mission as well as the spiritual wellbeing of the supporting congregation. After delivering the Philippian church’s gift to Paul, Epaphroditus stayed with him to help in his mission to Ephesus. As a result of civil unrest generated by Paul’s preaching, Paul is arrested and imprisoned. (Acts 19:23-20:1; I Corinthians 15:32; II Corinthians 1:8-11). To make matters worse, Epaphroditus becomes gravely ill. The Philippians are greatly distressed by both of these developments. Upon Epaphroditus’ recovery, Paul sends him back to the Philippians with the second letter assuring them that, in spite of the circumstances, he is well and that his imprisonment is furthering the cause of the gospel. The final letter appears to be a fragment from a larger letter, the remainder of which has been lost. Paul is writing to warn the Philippians of some rival missionaries who are teaching the Gentile converts that they must be circumcised in order to join the church. This issue is treated further in Paul’s Letter to the Galatians.

Our reading for this Sunday comes from the second letter, Phil B. Though there is some dispute among scholars over where Paul was imprisoned when he wrote this letter, it is clear that Paul was imprisoned at the time for activities related to his preaching. I find most persuasive the conclusion that Paul was in Ephesus at this time. It is noteworthy that Paul begins his letter not with a description of his own dire circumstances as a prisoner, but with a word of thanksgiving for the support and partnership he has received from the church at Philippi. If you read further on in this first chapter of Philippians, it becomes clear that Paul’s position is precarious. The proceedings against him could possibly lead to a death sentence. Though Paul would prefer release from prison and further fruitful ministry, he is prepared to die for his witness to Jesus. He is confident that his little church in Philippi is safe in the arms of Jesus and that God “who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ.” Vs. 6.

I think this is about the most comforting word in the Bible. After all, life is full of loose ends. There are things I wish I had said to Mom and Dad when they were still alive. There are activities I wish I had done with my children, places I wish I could have taken them, time lost that I know I should have spent with them. Although I would like to believe I have grown in wisdom and understanding, I know that I suffer from the same insecurity, fear and anger I have known all my life. There are days when I ask myself, “Peter, are you ever going to grow up?” Now, well into the top third of my statistically determined life span, it is clear to me that I have not the time, energy or wisdom to tie up all the loose ends in my life. So it is good to know that, where I can make only a very poor beginning, Jesus promises completion. I can die before the work is finished knowing that Jesus will heal what is wounded, reconcile what is estranged and restore what has been lost.

In this season of Advent our focus is on what Paul calls “the day of Jesus Christ.” Vs. 6. I think that Paul’s word here must be set against warning of Malachi. Yes, the prophet Malachi is correct. God’s messenger comes as a refining fire to burn away all the chaff. That will not be pleasant. But as unpleasant as the refining process is, the objective is to heal, purify and perfect. Burning away the impurities is simply part and parcel of bringing to completion the good work begun at our baptism into Jesus Christ. Malachi poses the question: “Who can endure the day of [God’s] coming and who can stand when he appears?” The answer, according to Paul, is everyone who clings in faith to Jesus’ promise to use that fiery day to complete in us what he began.

Luke 3:1-6

Luke’s introduction of John the Baptist begins with a roll call of all the movers and shakers in the ancient Mediterranean world. Tiberius, emperor of Rome, was the successor to Augustus Caesar, the man credited with imposing the “peace of Rome” over the world (or a good portion of it anyway). Tiberius was a great general responsible for expanding the imperial borders. As an emperor, he was much less effective. He was known to be moody, timid and disinterested in affairs of state. In many respects he was an inept leader riding the coattails of his illustrious predecessor. Pontius Pilate, who we will meet later on, became prefect of Judaea in 26 A.D. According to the Jewish historian, Josephus, he was ordered back to Rome after harshly suppressing a Samaritan uprising in about 37 A.D. Herod the “tetrarch” (meaning ruler of the fourth), was a son of the infamous Herod the Great, known in Matthew’s gospel for the slaughter of the children of Bethlehem. Also known as Herod Antipas, he was responsible for the imprisonment and execution of John the Baptist. Unlike his father who ruled all of Judea, Herod Antipas ruled only the region of Galilee. Philip the Tetrarch was also a son of Herod the Great and a half-brother of Herod Antipas. Philip inherited the northeast part of his father’s kingdom, Judah. Little is known about Lysanias other than that he was probably another regional ruler appointed by Rome as were Herod and Philip. His territory was to the north of Judah. For a thorough discussion of the political movers and shakers of this era, see Marshall, Howard I., Commentary on Luke, New International Greek Testament Commentary (c. 1978 by Paternoster Press, Ltd.) pp. 132-134.

High priests were selected and appointed by the Roman authorities, often with little input from the Jewish people. This practice did much to discredit the priesthood in the eyes of the Jewish people as a whole. So also did the onerous taxes collected for the support of the temple and the commercial activity in the temple courts-much of the proceeds of which went directly to the coffers of Rome. Thus, Jesus’ act of cleansing the temple not only offended Jerusalem’s religious elite. It was also a shot across the bow of Rome. Annas was high priest until 14 A.D. when he was deposed by the Roman authorities and replaced with his own son in law, Caiaphas. Schweizer, Eduard, The Good News According to Luke, (c. 1984 by John Knox Press) p. 69. It seems clear from the passion accounts in the gospels, however, that Annas continued to exercise a significant degree of authority behind the scenes. Indeed, Luke goes so far as to name both men as high priests, though technically there could only have been one. Ibid. 70.

“The word of the Lord came to John the son of Zachariah in the wilderness…” This is a common formula used throughout the Hebrew Scriptures. See, e.g., Jeremiah 1:1-3; Ezekiel 1:1-3; Micah 1:1-2. Because word and action are largely the same when it comes to God’s speech, it might be better to translate the phrase: “The word of God happened to John.” Ibid p. 70. The word of the Lord comes to a prophet, but never in a vacuum. The word comes in specific times, in certain places and during the reigns of particular kings. These contextual settings are important because ours is a God that takes history seriously. The word of God is always addressed to a specific audience in a specific circumstance. To put it differently, God is one who gets involved with the messy details of our lives. So much so that the Gospel of John can say that God’s Word ultimately becomes flesh and blood, entering into the messy business of birth, childhood, adolescence, suffering and death. The world into which this Incarnate Word comes is a violent, corrupt and dangerous place. This is not a fairytale we are about to hear. Yet because this is our world, a world filled with destructive evils we have made for ourselves and because we cannot seem to escape the consequences of what our hands have made, the news of Christ’s coming into the midst of our self-made mess with the healing touch of God is incredibly good.

John the Baptist is introduced with a passage from the first chapter of Isaiah. These words were addressed to the exiled Jews living in Babylon in the 6th Century B.C.E.  The prophet sees in the immanent fall of Babylon to Persia a God given opportunity for his people to return home to Palestine. The “highway” through the desert refers to the way God is making from Babylon to Jerusalem for the exiles’ return. The people in Jesus’ time were exiles in their own land. They were governed by rulers appointed from Rome and the produce of their nation was being extracted by Roman taxation. Roman troops, ever present throughout Judea and Galilee, did not hesitate to crucify anyone who dared challenge Rome’s authority. Into this violent and conflicted land the word of the Lord came to John. What then will this word be? What powerful forces will it set in motion? What news will break forth from the mouth of this prophet? We will find out about that next week!

It is also worth noting that, after Luke goes to great lengths filling us in on the identity of various powers that be governing the empire from Rome to Galilee, he turns our focus abruptly away from all these “movers and shakers” to the wilderness. It is here that God speaks. It is here where the news is being made. The events that are about to shake the universe to its core are not being debated in the Roman Senate or decreed in the Temple of Jerusalem. They are being announced by a strange preacher in the heart of the wilderness where nothing newsworthy happens-or so we have been led to believe. Luke would have us know that the real news isn’t what gets printed in the papers. It is happening in the last places you would expect: in the wilderness; in a drafty old barn; on a rocky hill outside Jerusalem where miscreants are put to death; in the darkness of a tomb.

 

Sunday, January 11th

BAPTISM OF OUR LORD

Genesis 1:1-5
Psalm 29
Acts 19:1-7
Mark 1:4-11

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.

Though my mother died two years ago, we are still processing the personal effects she and Dad left behind. This last week my sister sent me a packet of pictures, letters and documents she thought I would appreciate and I did. Of particular interest was a letter to my parents from Pastor Schramm, the minister who baptized me. Evidently, my parents sent him a monetary gift in appreciation for performing my baptism. The letter reads as follows:

Dear Mr. & Mrs. Olsen

          I received your gift of appreciation, and want to thank you kindly. I do not expect any remuneration for such services since they belong to the very essence of a pastor’s ministrations, but your sentiments of gratitude are greatly appreciated. May the Lord richly bless your efforts to keep your son in his baptismal grace and faith through patient and persistent application of the Savior’s redeeming & regenerating Gospel.

          May the Redeemer’s loving presence pervade your home and hearts always.

 Sincerely,

 Pastor E. R. Schramm.

I was baptized as an infant on February 19, 1956. We Lutherans do that all the time. In fact, we rarely baptize anyone who isn’t an infant. Though infant baptism appears to have deep roots in the practice of the church, there is no evidence of any such practice in the New Testament. That has always made us a tad defensive. When our Anabaptist sisters and brothers ask us our biblical basis for baptizing infants, the best we can do is point to a few passages which speak of whole “households” being baptized. After all, a household is often made up by people of all ages. It is entirely possible that there were infants in those households we read about in the New Testament. But we don’t send people to jail on the basis of mere possibilities and we shouldn’t ground the church’s sacramental practices in them either. If we are going to make the case for infant baptism, we must ground it in solid theological reasoning.

Lutherans maintain that infant baptism rests on God’s free grace. “You did not choose me,” says Jesus, “I chose you.” Infants come to faith the same way as adults: through the preaching of the Word and the sharing of the Sacraments. Baptism is God’s work designed to bring us to faith. It does not work in isolation from, but in concert with preaching and teaching the good word of the Gospel and through the Eucharistic meal. Baptism has both a vertical and horizontal dimension. Through baptism, we are reborn children of God. That is the vertical piece. Because the newly re-born in Christ (whatever age we might be) need nurture, care and upbringing, we are born into a family called church. That is the horizontal dimension. Infant baptism, and baptism generally for that matter, presupposes a church community that understands the gravity of the promises it makes to raise up the newly baptized in the Christian faith. Baptism is only intelligible when practiced within the context of a community that accepts the responsibility of keeping its children in “baptismal grace and faith through patient and persistent application of the Savior’s redeeming & regenerating Gospel,” as Pastor Schramm so aptly put it.

I believe that Lutheran baptismal theology is spot on. Lutheran baptismal practice, however, is nothing short of heretical. We regularly baptize children of folks who haven’t the least interest in raising those children in the church. We do it because we hope that we can win them over by being sweet and accommodating. We do it because their parents are long-time members whose noses would be put out of joint if we spoiled the baptismal festivities for their grandchildren. We do it because we fear being looked upon as judgmental should we have the audacity to exercise even a modicum of baptismal discipline. Consequently, promises made before God by parents, sponsors and congregations to bring newly baptized children to the house of God, teach them the fundamentals of the Christian faith and nurture them in their life of discipleship are broken with impunity by all parties alike. Baptism has become little more than an excuse for a party. Indeed, it was not so very long ago that I was called by someone who claimed a connection with our church and asked to drive out to the house to do a baptism. “And could you hurry?” The caller added. “We kind of want to get the party under way.” Though I have become fairly promiscuous with my baptismal practices in my old age, there are some things even I won’t do. Not to worry. I am sure that caller went straight to the Yellow Pages and found someone whose standards are lower even than mine.

In my youth, I took a harder line on baptism insisting that parents attend pre-baptismal courses and join the congregation before I would agree to perform a baptism. I made it clear to them that baptism was the doorway into a life of discipleship in community with God’s people. I made no bones about telling them that, if they had no desire for such a life for themselves or their child, they should not seek baptism. I thought I was right then and I still believe that, theologically, I was on target. But being right is seldom enough. However correct I was in what I said, what people heard was rejection. I discovered too late that the searing pain of being turned away drowned out what I hoped would be a salutary admonition. I discovered that I could not fix what is wrong with baptism in our church by tightening up our practices. Like it or not, I must work with what we have allowed baptism to become and trust that God’s words of promise will not be shouted down by our shameful practices.

The truth is, our loosey goosey approach to baptism is only a symptom of the larger problem. Our churches are failing to be churches, intentional communities of people dedicated to following Jesus. They have become spiritual filling stations where we go to get a measure of peace, a lift in our mood and enough faith to deal with life the rest of the week. We have been content to market a faith that helps us cope with what is rather than giving us a vision of what might be, a faith that asks little of us and returns even less. Small wonder, then, that we are reaping a harvest of indifference. A church that sees itself as a service organization existing for the benefit of its members cannot possibly support a robust sacramental understanding of the baptismal mystery. In such a watered down context, baptism ceases to become intelligible as anything more than a cute naming ceremony.

The solution? I am afraid it lies beyond any program, educational initiative or liturgical reform we can ever implement. Only an outpouring of the Holy Spirit can restore us. I can therefore only recommend that we pray heartily this Sunday, “Holy God…Immerse us in your grace, and transform us by your Spirit, that we may follow after your Son, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.”

Genesis 1:1-5

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.

Psalm 29

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.

Acts 19:1-7

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 1:4-11

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!

 

 

Sunday, December 14th

THIRD SUNDAY OF ADVENT

Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11
Psalm 126
1 Thessalonians 5:16-24
John 1:6-8, 19-28

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.

Our gospel reading for this Sunday tells us a lot more about who John the Baptist isn’t than who he is. You can sense the frustration in the voices of those sent from Homeland Security Headquarters in Jerusalem to investigate him. “If you are not the Messiah or Elijah or the great prophet, who the hell are you? Why are you baptizing? We need answers!” Perhaps John was a little frustrated himself. It isn’t much fun answering questions that are designed to pigeon-hole you, put a label on you and box you in. I have been through that before. “Are you pro-life or pro-choice?” “Do you believe the Bible is literally true?” “Are you in favor of the death penalty?” “Where do you stand on gun control?” More often than not, the folks who ask me these questions are not particularly interested in any opinions I might have about these issues or the reasons for any such opinions. The objective is usually to determine whether I am with them, whether I am on their side, whether I am one of their people.

So how do I respond? I would like say that I am pro-life for the unborn children, for the born children fleeing into our country, for the victims of military action and for the prisoner sitting on death row. I would like to say that truth is more than a bundle of propositions. Truth is a person and the Bible is true because it points us to the one who is the Way, the Truth and the Life. I would like to say that I am in favor of self-control which, if practiced, would make the whole issue of gun control mute. I would like to say that I am a baptized child of God which defines who I am more than any opinion I may have about any particular issue; that I am in the process of being transformed into the image of Christ and so, of course, my views on just about everything are always changing. In today’s polarized climate, that is called “flip flopping.” The Bible calls it repentance.

But most people who press these “where do you stand” kind of questions have little patience for nuance. Like the emissaries from Jerusalem sent to John, they want their questions answered on their terms. So the conversation ends with both of us coming away frustrated. Neither of us is getting what we want. They don’t get their answers and I don’t get to explain myself.

Perhaps the problem is that I am too concerned with making myself understood. John doesn’t have that problem. “Me? I’m just a voice,” says John. “The one you should be focused on is coming after me. Save your questions for him.” You see, at the end of the day, it doesn’t matter what I think. All that matters is Jesus. My job as a disciple of Jesus is to point to him. When I focus on explaining myself, I just get in the way.

On this third Sunday of Advent our focus is on the prophetic testimony of Isaiah pointing us to God’s redemptive purpose for the world and the testimony of John the Baptist to the One through whom that purpose comes to fruition. Saint Paul warns us to be open to the Holy Spirit and the voice of prophetic testimony bearing witness to Jesus. Only so can we be shaped into the kind of people whose words and lives point beyond ourselves to the One who died, who was raised and who will come again.

Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11

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 Sunday, April 13, 2014.) 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.

Isaiah 61:5-7.

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 wellbeing 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.

Psalm 126

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.

Refrain:
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.
Refrain

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.
Refrain

1 Thessalonians 5:16-24

“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!

John 1:6-8, 19-28

“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.

Sunday, December 7th

SECOND SUNDAY OF ADVENT

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Isaiah 40:1-11

Chapter forty of Isaiah marks the beginning of a section of that book commonly referred to as “The Book of Consolations” or “Second Isaiah.” Whereas the prophet Isaiah of the first thirty-nine chapters preached to Judah in the 8th Century as the nation lived uneasily in the shadow of the Assyrian Empire, the historical context of this unnamed prophet we refer to as “Second Isaiah” is Babylon’s defeat by Cyrus the Great in or around 538 B.C.E. Babylon’s policy was to carry into exile the leading citizenship of the nations it conquered. This reduced the potential for revolution in these captive provinces while bringing into Babylonian society thousands of skilled and gifted leaders. Cyrus’ policy was to permit peoples, such as the Jews, living in exile within the Babylonian territories he conquered to return to their homelands. Though often hailed as an enlightened and compassionate act, Cyrus’ policy was calculated to destabilize Babylon. When the captive populations learned that Cyrus intended to set them free, they were quick to rally to his side against their Babylonian rulers. The prophet of the Book of Consolations recognized in this new historical development the hand of God creating an opportunity for the people of Judah to return to their homeland-and much, much more.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Psalm 85:1-2, 8-13

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

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

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

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

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

2 Peter 3:8-15a

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

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

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

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

Mark 1:1-8

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

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

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

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

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