Tag Archives: Lent

Ashes and regrets; a poem by Louis Untermeyer; and the lessons for Sunday, February 18, 2018

See the source imageFIRST SUNDAY IN LENT

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

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

“Do not remember the sins of my youth or my transgressions; according to your steadfast love remember me, for your goodness’ sake, O Lord!” Psalm 25:7.

Perhaps it is a function of age that makes this particular line from the psalm strike me with such poignancy. The past is fixed and you can only look back on it with a sense of thankfulness, nostalgia or deep regret. You can’t alter it. It is what it is. Though I am hardly without sins of commission, the most painful sins of my youth are those of omission. These include the friendships I let die from neglect; the opportunities to offer help and comfort for which I was too busy; my shameful lack of generosity growing out of an unfounded fear that I did not have enough for myself and my loved ones; my failures to express thanks to the many people whose lives have enriched mine; the times I remained silent when I know in my heart I should have spoken up; my indifference to the suffering of the poor and oppressed around the world and around the corner. I have lived a privileged life with a great measure of wealth, opportunity and security. But having been given so much, it seems I have contributed so little.

Perhaps the biggest regret I have is that Sesle and I never took in any foster children. I always had in my mind the strong belief that being foster parents is something we ought to do. Every child deserves a stable and loving home. We had such a home and we could easily have opened it to children in need. Of course, there were many reasons we never got around to it. We had three children of our own, one with a chronic medical condition that required a substantial commitment. Sesle was very ill for over a decade in our younger years which would have made taking on additional responsibilities difficult. We were stretched financially at times-or thought we were. Nevertheless, despite all of these excuses, the fact remains that we could have opened our home to more children and I have no doubt we would have been blessed beyond whatever hardships came with them. If I had only looked to the enormity of God’s generosity and the wealth of God’s promises rather than to my own perceived lack of time, money and stamina, I would have ordered my life differently-or so I tell myself.

This coming Wednesday I will receive on my forehead, along with millions of other Christians, the sign of the cross in ashes. This is a graphic reminder that so much of what we plan, hope for, value and prize turns out to be only ashes and dust in the end. We are confronted with all that might have been if only our lives had been inspired by faith rather than driven by fear. For those of us whose lives are mostly behind us, this is a bitter pill to swallow. Nonetheless, it is the pill that frees us. It is the truth that makes us free and the truth, bitter though it sometimes is, can be borne because we worship a God who is “merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.” This God does not judge us according to all that we have done and failed to do. This God judges us on the basis of God’s own steadfast love and faithfulness. However late the hour, it is not too late. “Yet even now, says the LORD, return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; rend your hearts and not your clothing. Joel 2:1.

The past cannot be changed, but we can decide what it will mean for us going forward. The past can be the enslaving power that shapes our future into its own perverse image or it can be that from which we turn away for the sake of a new future. Yesterday can be the negative in the dark room that produces a bright and colorful new image. The ashes remind us that we are dust; but they also remind us of the God who at the dawn of time breathed life into lifeless dust to create a living being. The disciplines of Lent offer us a path toward healing the past precisely because God’s compassion is deeper than the sins of our past and is able still to make something beautiful with our remaining days-however few they may be.

Here is an interesting poem by Louis Untermeyer juxtaposing the solemnity of Ash Wednesday with something of the giddy joy of Easter Sunday.

Ash Wednesday

(Vienna)

I

Shut out the light or let it filter through
These frowning aisles as penitentially
As though it walked in sackcloth. Let it be
Laid at the feet of all that ever grew
Twisted and false, like this rococo shrine
Where cupids smirk from candy clouds and where
The Lord, with polished nails and perfumed hair,
Performs a parody of the divine.

The candles hiss; the organ-pedals storm;
Writhing and dark, the columns leave the earth
To find a lonelier and darker height.
The church grows dingy while the human swarm
Struggles against the impenitent body’s mirth.
Ashes to ashes. . . . Go. . . . Shut out the light.

(Hinterbrühl)

II

And so the light runs laughing from the town,
Pulling the sun with him along the roads
That shed their muddy rivers as he goads
Each blade of grass the ice had flattened down.
At every empty bush he stops to fling
Handfuls of birds with green and yellow throats;
While even the hens, uncertain of their notes,
Stir rusty vowels in attempts to sing.

He daubs the chestnut-tips with sudden reds
And throws an olive blush on naked hills
That hoped, somehow, to keep themselves in white.
Who calls for sackcloth now? He leaps and spreads
A carnival of color, gladly spills
His blood: the resurrection—and the light.

Source: Untermeyer, Louis, Burning Bush (New York: Harcourt, 1928). Louis Untermeyer (1885-1977) was the son of a New York jeweler. His  interest in poetry led to friendships with poets from three generations, including many of the century’s major writers such as Robert Frost and Ezra Pound. In addition to children’s books and anthologies, Untermeyer published collections of his own poetry. You can find out more about Louis Untermeyer and sample more of his poetry on the Poetry Foundation website.

Genesis 9:8-17

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

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

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

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

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

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

Psalm 25:1-10

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

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

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

1 Peter 3:18-22

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

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

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

Mark 1:9-15

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

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

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

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

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

Transfigured to purgatory; A poem about Transfiguration; and the lessons for Sunday, February 11, 2018

See the source imageTRANSFIGURATION OF OUR LORD

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

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

As noted below in my remarks on the gospel for this Sunday, Rudolf Bultmann is convinced that the transfiguration story is an ancient resurrection account that Mark the Evangelist has worked into the center of his narrative. This placement was then followed by Matthew and Luke whose gospels rely upon Mark. So why would anyone other than Bible scholars care about any of this? What significance does this have for the faithful reader of the gospels? I believe that this is one of those rare instances where redaction analysis really matters. The Evangelist is not simply being sloppy here. S/he is deliberately introducing the only resurrection account we have in Mark’s gospel into the very midst of the story. In the Transfiguration, death is undone. The relentless march of time is ended. The line of demarcation between past and future evaporates into the midst and we stand in God’s eternal now. The figures of Moses and Elijah, separated by centuries, converse together with Jesus on the mountain top. Can you blame the three disciples for believing that the reign of God had arrived? That the resurrection had occurred? That nothing remained but to bask in the glory of God’s new creation?

But here’s the thing. The reign of God has not come in full. The will of God is not done on earth as in heaven. The resurrection of the dead has not occurred. That is why the disciples are told not to speak of what transpired until after Jesus’ suffering, death and resurrection-a reality about which they remain in a state of willful denial. Therein lies the problem. Neither the world nor the disciples are ready for the resurrection. They are not yet the kind of persons capable of living joyfully, faithfully and obediently under God’s gentle reign of peace. Resurrection is not good news if it means only that our present existence with all of its conflicts, prejudices, blood feuds, animosities and unresolved conflicts is projected into eternity. That sounds much more like a definition of hell!  If we ourselves are not fundamentally transformed, we can hardly expect to live in a world transfigured by God’s glory.

Though not Biblical in the strict sense, there is a certain logic behind the medieval doctrine of purgatory. The term is derived from the Latin verb, purgo, meaning literally “to cleanse.” I doubt that few of us would deny that a single lifetime is far too short to become a creature capable of living under God’s reign. If you have any doubts about that, ask yourself whether there is anyone you would not want to meet in the hereafter. If you can answer that inquiry with a confident “no,” you are either a bonafide saint or seriously deluded. If it is God’s will that none perish and that all come to repentance, then the “all” includes those with whom we are at enmity. We might rather have God cleanse the universe of people we hate; but God would purge us of hatred so that we can live peaceably with those we now count as enemies-however long that might take. This “purging,” however, is not to be found in some intermediate state between heaven and hell. It takes place here and now through the daily practice of confession and forgiveness. We are purged in that fiery furnace known as the church, where we must live together with people we wouldn’t necessary choose as our friends, people who rub us the wrong way, people we might not want in our midst-but people whom Jesus has called, and that because they can help us purge ourselves in ways we could never manage to do on our own.

Significantly, the voice from heaven directs the disciples away from the vision of resurrection and back to Jesus. “This,” says the voice, “is my beloved Son. Listen to him.” There is no short cut to the resurrection and eternal life. There is no bypassing the fiery ordeal of repentance; no alternate route avoiding the valley of the shadow of death. There is no way around purgatory, only through it. That is where Jesus led his disciples in the gospel and that is where he leads his church during the season of Lent. We summoned on Ash Wednesday to acknowledge what our death denying culture so adamantly refuses to accept: that we are dust and to dust we return. We are invited to journey with Jesus into Jerusalem to shouts of “Hosanna” that soon will turn to cries of “Crucify him!” We are asked to dine with Jesus at his last meal with his disciples-which will continue in a way too marvelous for us to comprehend. On Easter Sunday we will be drawn to the tomb as were the women-only to discover that our Lord is not there! This is our purging. This is our preparation for the reign of God: Listening to him revealed to us as God’s beloved Son.

Here’s a poem about the Transfiguration.

Transfiguration

The sky was dark and overcast the day
we began our ascent to the top of that mountain.
Cold mist soaked our garments from without
as did the sweat of our weary bodies from within.
Up and up we followed in His footsteps,
each of us wondering how He knew the way
and how He could see the path through the
impenetrable fog all around us on every side.
Our hearts pumped frantically, our lungs gasped at the thinning air,
our aching limbs longed to fall motionless to the ground.
And so they did at long last when finally we reached the summit.
Broken with fatigue we lay down on the grass,
heedless of the cold and wet, leaving Him to His meditations.

Of what we saw-or thought we saw-when we awoke
I still cannot find words enough to tell the half of it.
His face shown like the sun as he conversed with the ancient ones.
The cloud enveloped us and brought us to our knees
with the power of a mighty ocean wave.
But most terrible of all was that voice driving
like a nail into our very souls these words:
“This is my Son, my Beloved. Listen to him.”
Small wonder we fell to the earth and hid our faces.
When at last we found enough courage to open our eyes
the cloud was once again cold drizzle and fog,
the voice silent, the ancients gone
and only He remained to lead us back to the plane.

Anonymous

2 Kings 2:1-12

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

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

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

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

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

Psalm 50:1-6

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

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

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

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

2 Corinthians 4:3-6

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

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

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

Mark 9:2-9

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

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

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

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

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

 

Sunday, March 5th

FIRST SUNDAY IN LENT

Genesis 2:15–17; 3:1–7
Psalm 32
Romans 5:12–19
Matthew 4:1–11

PRAYER OF THE DAY: Lord God, our strength, the struggle between good and evil rages within and around us, and the devil and all the forces that defy you tempt us with empty promises. Keep us steadfast in your word, and when we fall, raise us again and restore us through your Son, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

Jack was a parishioner of my first congregation. He was as devout a believer as I ever knew, but was plagued with severe arthritis that robbed him of mobility, sleep and sometimes the ability to concentrate. One day I came to see him, and as we sat together in his kitchen, he pushed a mail order advertisement across the table to me. The ad featured a miracle cure for arthritic pain. It promised near instant relief and, as is usually the case for such ruses, it contained testimonials from several formerly crippled people who were now climbing mountains, jumping out of airplanes and running marathons. “I sent my order and a check out this morning,” said Jack through his tears. “I’m not a stupid man, Pastor,” he said. “I know it’s a hoax. I know it won’t heal me. But Pastor, I had such a horrible night last night-and I wanted so badly for this ad to be true. I wanted so badly to believe it. I just couldn’t help myself.” My heart ached for Jack-and burned with wrath against the heartless, callus, lowlife slime behind that ad specifically designed to reap corporate profits from Jack’ misery. I saw in a very concrete way the demonic nature of temptation and its devastating effect on those who fall prey to it.

Now you might point out that, unlike Jack, Adam and Eve were in no such desperate straits. They were living in paradise, after all. But perhaps that is the whole point. We imagine that life would be so much better if we could free ourselves from pain, get rid of our debt burden, get away from difficult family situations or get hold of enough money to make us financially secure. Yet this lesson from Genesis tells us that, even when given everything we need (or think we need), we still feel insecure. We still think we need more. We still imagine that we are in a zero sum game in which we have to get full ownership and control. Of course, this is delusional thinking. We don’t really own or control anything-not our homes, our children or even our own lives. We lose it all in the end. Nobody gets off this planet alive.

It is precisely here where the serpent injects his poison. “You shall not die,” he assures us. “You don’t have to accept the limits God places on you. You can be ‘like God.’” It’s a preposterous lie, but a comforting one.  We want desperately to believe the serpent, though common sense tells us he can’t possibly be speaking the truth. In spite of our sophisticated, scientific understanding of the universe, there is still a part of us that can’t help falling for the serpent’s empty promise of immortality. Perhaps that is why we have such difficulty planning for our last years on this earth. Maybe that is why so many of us resist moving out of our homes, even when the burden of maintaining them is well beyond our capability. Maybe that is what makes it so difficult to discuss hospice arrangements for our dying loved ones and medical directives for ourselves when the time comes that we are unable to make our own choices. There is at the core of my being the blind, irrational hope that none of this really applies to me and I don’t need to trouble myself with it-at least not yet. This latent fear of death is well captured in the following poem by Deborah Landau:***

I Don’t Have a Pill for That
 
It scares me to watch
a woman hobble along
the sidewalk, hunched adagio

leaning on —
there’s so much fear
I could draw you a diagram

of the great reduction
all of us will soon
be way-back-when.

The wedding is over.
Summer is over.
Life please explain.

This book is nearly halfway read.
I don’t have a pill for that,
the doctor said.

Source: Poetry Magazine (January 2001) c. Deborah Landau.

The devil knows how to exploit our craven fear of death. He knows how frantically we want that “pill,” how much we want to escape the grave and how eager we are to grasp any straw, however feeble, that promises a way around it. He knows how sweet his empty promises sound in our ears. And we know how vulnerable we are to voices that promise us quick fixes, easy solutions and painless resolutions. History is littered with the ruins of nations destroyed by demagogues promising wealth, glory and jobs with little or no cost to a people hungry for a better life. The cosmetic industry makes a fortune selling creams and lotions that promise to remove wrinkles and obscure all other evidence of aging-as though that could fool the grim reaper. On the extreme end of things, people with the means to do so are having their bodies cybernetically frozen in hopes that we will someday discover technology allowing us to unfreeze and resuscitate them once again. Is not all of this simply an expression of our irrational belief in the serpent’s promise that, if we push hard enough against our mortal limits, we will become “like God?”

Jesus isn’t buying any of it. He knows full well that the devil’s promises are empty and that he cannot deliver on any of them. Jesus knows well enough that, as God’s human creature, he is not autonomous but that his life depends on the fruits of creation that are God’s free gifts. Jesus knows that the power of empires and armies is illusory. He knows full well that pain, suffering and death are the price we pay for living freely, joyfully and faithfully as God’s beloved creatures within the limits of our humanity. Jesus has no interest in being “like God.” Instead, he lives a life that is genuinely and faithfully human. You might say that Jesus is the first truly human person.

During this season of Lent we are challenged to see through the devil’s lies and recognize the grip they have on our lives. We are challenged to let go of our delusions of autonomy, control and invulnerability. We will be reminded this week that we are but dust into which God graciously breaths the spirit of life. To dust we shall return in the hope that the same God will breathe on us once more that holy wind of life and raise us up just as he did our Lord Jesus Christ. We will be reminded once more that it is in pouring out our lives in love for God and faithful service to our neighbors that we receive them back again one hundred fold.

***Deborah Landau is Director of the Creative Writing Program at New York University. She studied at Stanford University, Columbia University, and Brown University, where she was a Jacob K. Javits Fellow and earned a PhD in English and American Literature. She co-directed the KGB Bar Monday Night Poetry Series and co-hosted the video interview program Open Book on Slate.com. In 2016, she was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship. You can find out more about Deborah Landau and read more of her poetry at the Poetry Foundation website.

Genesis 2:15–17; 3:1–7

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 reading from Sunday is attributed in the main to the Jawhist. Unlike the first chapter of Genesis where the Priestly writer testifies to God’s creation of the universe in a poetic hymn building on the six days of creation to the culmination on the Seventh Day when God rests from his labor, the Jawhist spins a simple narrative about the creation. God first creates an “earth creature.” This creature, though human, is not properly speaking a “man.” He is an “adam,” having been taken from the earth (“earth” being “adamah” in Hebrew). Not until God recognizes that it is not good for this “adam” to be alone and creates from his own body a female counterpart can he be called a “man.” The Hebrew word for a male human being is “ish” and that for a female, “ishah.” The term “ish” is not used for the “adam” until the creation of the woman. Genesis 2:23.

Though seemingly primitive, this story is a nuanced account of humanity’s problematic relationship with its Creator. As such, it is less an explanation for how evil came into the world and more a description of the way matters now stand. Though Christian and later Jewish tradition has identified the serpent with the devil, that does not seem to have been the intent either of the Jawhist or the subsequent editors. According to the narrative, the serpent is a creature made by God like all other creatures. It is “subtle,” but not necessarily evil. We are not told why the serpent tempted Eve to eat from the forbidden tree or what he stood to gain from humanity’s disobedience. No explanation is given as to why God would place in the garden inhabited by human beings a tree bearing knowledge God did not want for humans to have. But perhaps we are overthinking this. The point seems to be that human beings are creatures. Though endowed with marvelous potential for learning, love and creativity, they are nevertheless bounded by limits. They are mortal. They are dependent upon the rest of creation for their sustenance. They cannot change the past or control the future. They have only today. Yesterday must be surrendered to the God who made it and tomorrow must be left trustingly in God’s hands. In order to live well, human beings must live faithfully within their limits trusting God for what lies beyond.

The serpent suggests that this need not be so. Humans do not have to accept the limits God has placed upon them. They need not accept God’s determination of what is “good” for them. If God places limits on Adam and Eve, it can only be that God is holding something back. God has goods he doesn’t want to share. The bottom line, as far as the serpent is concerned, is that God cannot be trusted to do right by his creatures. “So,” says the serpent, “don’t believe for one minute that you will die from eating the fruit of the tree. That’s just an empty threat. The tree is the key to being master of your own destiny. Do you want to be a humble little gardener for the rest of your life? Wouldn’t you rather be lord of the garden?”

It is a pity the lectionary does not let the entire story be told. If it were to do so, we would learn that there are betrayals going on at all levels here. Adam and Eve betray the trust invested in them by God. Adam throws Eve under the bus when confronted by God over his disobedience. Genesis 3:12. Eve blames the snake, thereby implicating God who is ultimately responsible for having made such a creature. Genesis 3:13. Harmony between the Creator and his human subjects, harmony in the most intimate of human relationships and harmony between human beings and the earth from which they were taken has all been disrupted. Genesis 3:14-19.

In the end, we are left with a humanity that rages futilely against its limits, running up again and again against God’s firm “no.” The forces of nature we cannot control, our weakness and vulnerability to accident and disease, the looming prospect of death become oppressive burdens when we can no longer recognize on the frontiers of these limiting factors the gracious God who can be trusted to see to our ultimate good. We have seized the unlimited prerogative of God, but as limited mortals we cannot bear it. Psychologist and Philosopher Ernest Becker puts it all quite succinctly in secular language.

“Man is out of nature and hopelessly in it; he is dual, up in the stars and yet housed in a heart-pumping, breath-gasping body that once belonged to a fish and still carries the gill-marks to prove it. His body is a material fleshy casing that is alien to him in many ways—the strangest and most repugnant way being that it aches and bleeds and will decay and die. Man is literally split in two: he has an awareness of his own splendid uniqueness in that he sticks out of nature with a towering majesty, and yet he goes back into the ground a few feet in order blindly and dumbly to rot and disappear forever.” Becker, Ernest, The Denial of Death, (c. 1973 Free Press Paperbacks). That pretty much reflects the terrifying state of human existence in the absence of God’s grace reflected in our reading from Genesis.

Psalm 32

This is one of the seven “penitential psalms” so classified in the commentary of Flavius Magnus Aurelius Cassiodorus Senator written in the 6th century C.E. (These include Psalms 6, 32, 3851102130 and 143). Not surprisingly, it was a favorite of Augustine and Luther. The psalmist speaks eloquently about the joy and relief found in forgiveness of sin and the futility of denial and self-justification. The psalmist does not disclose the nature of his or her sins, but indicates that it was some illness that brought him or her to an acknowledgement of sin and the need for confession. There is no question but that guilt induced stress can bring about illness, but it is far more likely in this case that the psalmist’s illness was the catalyst for guilt. Sickness was almost universally understood in ancient cultures as an affliction from God intended to punish sin. As such, its onset naturally drove the psalmist to introspection and self-examination.

In this case, the psalmist’s self-examination led to the discovery of sin that the psalmist had been trying to hide from God and perhaps even from the psalmist’s own self. In the confession and acknowledgement of sin, the psalmist found healing and relief. The psalmist therefore instructs fellow worshipers not take the path of sin and self-deception that leads to illness and misfortune, but to “come clean” with God and cry out for deliverance. Mulish stubbornness will only lead to grief. As Augustine puts it, “much is he scourged, who, confessing not his sins to God, would be his own ruler.” Moreover, “it is right to be subject unto [God], that so you may be placed above all things beside.” Augustine’s Commentary of Psalm 32 published in The Nicene and Post Nicene Fathers, Vol 8, (Erdmans, 1979) p. 71.

The psalmist’s advice is good as far as it goes, but his/her experience, valid and instructive though it may be, must not be elevated to a universal principle. Jesus reminds us that illness and disability are not necessarily related to anyone’s sin. John 9:3. The preacher from Ecclesiastes points out that in many cases justice and right do not prevail and all seems like “vanity.” Ecclesiastes 4:1-7. Sometimes tragedy happens for no apparent reason. There are psalms to address these circumstances as well. See, e.g. Psalm 39. When ministering to the sick and dying, one must always take care to avoid any suggestion that the individual’s suffering is a punishment from God. It is one thing for the sufferer himself/herself to come to an understanding of sin through reflection upon his/her ordeal and discover the healing power of forgiveness. It is quite another for someone else to pronounce a judgment of sin from the outside and expect the sufferer to plead guilty and repent!

That said, sometimes sickness is the result of our sinful lifestyles. It is well known that we are working longer hours these days under more stressful conditions. For many people in our country, this isn’t a choice. When you are at the minimum wage level, you need multiple incomes from two or three jobs just to put food on the table and keep a roof over your family. But for many of us, I believe that our frantic work ethic is more about maintaining a particular lifestyle. I have told the story many times of a fellow attorney who suffered a heart attack at the ripe old age of forty-one telling me, “This is what I get for spending my life doing work I hate to earn money I don’t need to buy stuff I don’t want to impress people I don’t like for reasons that don’t matter.” Chronic anger leads to high blood pressure, heart disease and depression. Our careless and excessive eating habits often lead to obesity and the health problems it creates. Nevertheless, it is dangerous to apply these general observations to instances of individual suffering.

Romans 5:12–19

Martin Luther says of Paul’s Letter to the Romans: “The sum and substance of this letter is: to pull down, to pluck up, and to destroy all wisdom and righteousness of the flesh (i.e., of whatever importance they may be in the sight of men and even in our own eyes), no matter how heartily and sincerely they may be practiced, and to affirm, establish, and make large the reality of sin (however unconscious we may be of its existence).” Luther, Martin, Lectures on Romans, The Library of Christian Classics (c. 1962 L. Jenkins, pub. The Westminster Press) p. 3. That certainly describes the way in which Paul begins his letter. In Romans 1 Paul lambasts the gentile culture of Rome for its gross immorality. In chapter two, we discover that this critique of the gentiles was but a sucker punch. The knockout blow comes in Romans 2:1 when Paul turns to his audience, the Roman church, and says, “Therefore you have no excuse, O man, whoever you are, when you judge another; for in passing judgment upon him you condemn yourself, because you, the judge are doing the same things.” I suspect that the readers are remarking at this point, “You can’t be serious, Paul! We don’t take part in any of those horrid, immoral practices!”

Paul is serious, though, and he is setting the stage for his argument in the chapters to come that sin is far deeper, more complicated and pervasive than his readers imagine. He is out to demonstrate to them that their supposed righteousness and moral superiority over the gentile culture they excoriate is an illusion. Sin is not a matter of living up to moral standards. It is a matter of the human heart being so hopelessly turned in upon itself and away from God that it cannot possibly obey God. The good news of Jesus Christ is not about reforming sinners. It is about crucifying and raising them up as new people.

In our reading for Sunday, Paul points out that sin came into the world through the disobedience of Adam. As we have seen in our first lesson, Adam’s and Eve’s sin consisted in this: they failed to trust God to see to their good and sought to reach beyond their creaturely limits and determine that good on their own and for themselves. Paul points out that sin was in the world before the law was given to Israel. Sin therefore existed even when there was no law by which to measure it. Paul will go on to point out that, while the law can reveal and expose sin, it cannot be used as a tool for overcoming sin. Romans 7:7-12. At its core, sin is our failure to trust God to be God. Therefore, the remedy for sin is the restoration of our trust or “faith” in God. Unless we can come to the point where we trust God enough to be God, we will never be able to live faithfully within our creaturely limitations. Without faith, we will always be reaching up in a futile effort to take control.

How, then, is our lack of trust overcome? How can the nagging doubt about God’s faithfulness planted in our hearts by the serpent be driven out? For an answer to that question, we need to back track to Romans 5:6-11. There Paul points out that while we were still sinful, faithless and rebelling against God, God showed his faithfulness toward and love for us in Jesus’ death for our sake. Romans 5:8. The death of Jesus demonstrates both the depth of human depravity in rejecting the very best God had to give and the greater depth of God’s love which will simply not take no for an answer. Paul wraps up his argument in Romans 8:31-39. “He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all, will he not give us all things with him?” Romans 8:32. “For I am sure,” says Paul, “that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Romans 8:38-39. It is the preaching of this wonderful good news that ignites trust and confidence in God’s faithfulness, silencing forever the serpent’s lies.

Matthew 4:1–11

As usual, Matthew employs numerous citations and allusions to people and events in the Hebrew Scripture’s narrative of God’s saving acts for Israel. Jesus’ forty days of fasting echoes Israel’s forty years of wilderness wandering as punishment for unfaithfulness on the verge of Canaan. Deuteronomy 8:2-3. It might also allude to the forty days Moses spent fasting on Mt. Sinai to prepare for confirmation of God’s covenant with Israel. Exodus 24:18Deuteronomy 9:9. Temptation to turn stones into bread could be an allusion to Moses’ rebellion in striking the stone to bring forth water in Numbers 20:1-13, but I have to say that I think this is a bit of a stretch.

“If you are the son of God…”  A first class condition in the Greek, this does not suggest that the devil doubts Jesus’ sonship. It reflects instead a desire to ferret out what sort of son Jesus will be. “Rhma,” is the Greek word used for “word” in Jesus’ scriptural response to the temptation to turn stone into bread. Somewhat broader than the term “logos,” it can include “event,” or “happening.” Just as Israel was made to rely upon the bread “spoken into existence” by the mouth of God while residing in the wilderness, so Jesus relies upon his heavenly Father to provide for his needs in his own wilderness wandering.

The temptation to jump from the pinnacle of the temple follows naturally from Jesus’ response to the last temptation. “Alright, Jesus. So you trust the promises of God to sustain you. Is that it? Well let’s see how much you trust those promises.” The devil is not a flunky when it comes to interpreting scripture. He has the jist of Psalm 91 correct. The psalmist does indeed claim that “because you have made the Lord your refuge, the Most High your habitation, no evil shall befall you, no scourge come near your tent.” Psalm 91:9-10. As we have seen, a similar conviction is expressed more moderately in this Sunday’s psalm. But as previously noted, these are not the only psalms in the Bible. They represent the life experiences of the individuals who prayed them and they still resonate for many people today-but not all people. Sometimes good conduct is not rewarded. Sometimes justice is not done. Sometimes our prayers meet with seeming silence. Often faith finds itself in circumstances where there is little or no evidence of God’s love and protection. There are psalms dealing with these very circumstances also. See, e.g., Psalm 88. Furthermore, the devil would do well to reflect on Psalm 30 in which arrogant presumption brings discipline and divine rebuke. Psalm 30:6-7.

The devil’s hermeneutic (focusing on a single scriptural voice to the neglect of others) is one of choice for culture warriors seeking biblical sanction for their various agendas. By cherry picking the verses you like and ignoring those you don’t, you can make the Bible say just about anything you want. But such use of the Bible does not honor its authority. Rather, it strips the Bible of all authority and makes the Bible a servant of ideologies, political platforms and social agendas.

The last temptation, to employ the power and glory of empire, is perhaps the most difficult to resist. Political power promises swift results-often good results. The only catch is that you need to worship the devil to get it. So political power is not neutral. To employ political means is not the same as using a spade-which could also be used as a weapon-to till a field. It is to enter into the realm of coercion, threats, moral compromises and always ultimately, violence. The devil would argue that you can’t make an omelet without breaking a few eggs. There will inevitably be blood spilled on the way to a better world. Collateral damage cannot be avoided. Some truths must wait to be spoken until a more opportune time-after the election preferably. The ends justify the means.

But we learn from the Sermon on the Mount that it is precisely the other way around for disciples of Jesus. The means determine the end. In fact, one could well say that the means are the only end a disciple is commanded to pursue. This might not appear to be helpful to persons seeking a general ethic for advancing the common good through political means. But Jesus does not seem interested in that. Indeed, the only time he mentions the nations of the world is when he tells his disciples not to be like them. As far as a disciple is concerned, truth must be spoken without any thought given to the effect it will have on the election of a candidate or the passage of a piece of legislation-however beneficial these may be. Violence must not be employed even in the service of justice and peace. The law courts are not to be used by disciples to defend their rights. This is the shape of Kingdom building Jesus chooses over the devil’s imminently more practical alternatives.

Sunday, February 28th

THIRD SUNDAY IN LENT

Isaiah 55:1-9
Psalm 63:1-8
1 Corinthians 10:1-13
Luke 13:1-9

Prayer of the Day: Eternal God, your kingdom has broken into our troubled world through the life, death, and resurrection of your Son. Help us to hear your word and obey it, and bring your saving love to fruition in our lives through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

Young lives tragically and undeservedly cut short. A life mercifully and undeservedly spared. This Sunday’s gospel places these very different outcomes in stark contrast. The story about the eighteen killed by the collapse of a tower has a contemporary ring to it. Only last week a crane in New York City fell from the top of a building killing instantly a man sitting in his car below. Also last week a dislodged manhole cover somehow became airborne and crashed through the windshield of an SUV killing the driver, an art teacher. It is not clear why Pilate killed the Galileans in our reading. It is possible they were involved in an insurrection of some sort, but they were most likely innocent victims selected for slaughter at random “to send a message” to any would be insurrectionists. Maybe, like so many killed in Syria and Iraq these days, they were simply caught in the crossfire of someone else’s fight. Acts of terror against innocent civilians are hardly novel these days.

Events like these send chills down the spine. They bring home to us how frail and vulnerable we all are. It takes only one defective screw, a second’s inattention, an unanticipated change in weather patterns to cut off a bright and promising future for an unsuspecting victim. It takes years of dedication, patience, sacrifice and anguish to raise a child. It takes only the pull of a trigger erase all of that. When we read about these horrific events, we can’t help thinking, “That could have been me or someone I love!”

Blaming the victims comes naturally. We take a perverse comfort in believing that the victims were somehow at fault for what befell them. After all, if I can identify some error, moral infraction or misjudgment on their part, it is easier for me to convince myself that I can avoid their fate. I just have to exercise more care than they did, stay off the route they were driving, or refrain from the sinful conduct I believe brought down upon them the wrath of God. I can fool myself into thinking that I am in control of my life and safe from the randomness with which death and destruction so often strike.

Jesus dispels that notion altogether. Are the victims of accident and violence any more deserving of death than those who lived to tell about it? “I tell you, No,” says Jesus, but he goes on to say that “unless you repent you will all likewise perish.” What does Jesus mean by that? I doubt he meant that repentance shields one from a violent death. Jesus has already made it clear that repentance and faith take us on the path of the cross. Discipleship makes a violent end more rather than less likely. I believe the explanation lies hidden in Jesus’ parable of the fig tree that follows.

Unlike the seemingly hapless victims in the daily news-both in Jesus’ day and our own-the fig tree has earned the judgment of destruction passed by the owner of the vineyard. In a semi-arid climate where cultivatable land is limited, it is difficult to justify allowing an unproductive tree to go on using up valuable soil. Yet as unexpected and cruel as was the fate of the victims we read about earlier, equally unexpected and undeserved is the owner’s act of mercy sparing the fig tree. At the request of the vinedresser, the tree is given a year’s reprieve. That is where the parable ends and we are left with a huge question. Will the tree use wisely and well the year of grace it has been given? Will it respond to the care and attention of the vinedresser? We might find it strange that Jesus imposes such heavy moral and spiritual responsibility on a plant. But bear in mind that Israel is frequently compared to a vine, a branch or a tree throughout the scriptures. Anyone listening to this parable would have known that Jesus is addressing his people Israel and, by extension, us.

Almost two weeks ago many of us received ashes on our foreheads in the sign of the cross. These ashes are a graphic reminder that we are indeed dust and will, sooner or later, return to dust. Death is God’s judgment upon us and there is no getting around it. The question is not how soon or late that judgment overtakes us, but whether we meet it confident that the life we must now surrender has borne fruit for the kingdom of heaven. Or as Paul would put it, have we built on the foundation which is Christ with gold, silver and precious stones, or have we contributed only hay, stubble and chaff that will not withstand the fire of judgment? I Corinthians 3:10-15.

How, then, shall we live? It is tempting to begin filling up our remaining days with good intentions. I will buy only Free Trade coffee; I will increase my giving to the church and to the poor; I will be more “intentional” (whatever that means) in working for justice and equality. All of those objectives are noble. But true discipleship begins with being rather than doing. Only a good tree is capable of bearing good fruit. Thus, before we can begin to do anything fruitful, we must be the kind of tree Jesus is looking for. We must become creatures capable of living joyfully, thankfully and obediently within the limits of our human mortality.

Our death denying culture hides its dying members away in institutions, sells all manner of cosmetics to hide the effects of aging, celebrates youth and encourages retirees to revert in their “golden years” to a self-absorbed, adolescent lifestyle. But disciples of Jesus are called to embrace with thanksgiving life in all its manifold stages. Disciples are challenged to receive each day as one that the Lord has made and offers as a gift. They are mindful that the number of such days is finite, that tomorrow is not a foregone conclusion and that health, strength and length of days is guaranteed to no one. But that only makes today all the more precious. It is out of such faithful gratitude that generosity flows. Generosity gives birth to compassion and compassion fuels zeal for justice, righteousness and reconciliation.

Here is a poem by New Hampshire poet laurite, Jane Kenyon, a woman whose struggle with depression and chronic illness taught her the art of living thankfully, generously and compassionately.

Otherwise

I got out of bed
on two strong legs.
It might have been
otherwise.  I ate
cereal, sweet
milk, ripe, flawless
peach.  It might
have been otherwise.
I took the dog uphill
to the birch wood.
All morning I did
the work I love.

At noon I lay down
with my mate.  It might
have been otherwise.
We ate dinner together
at a table with silver
candlesticks.  It might
have been otherwise.
I slept in a bed
in a room with paintings
on the walls, and
planned another day
just like this day.
But one day, I know,
it will be otherwise.

Source: Constance, Graywolf Press, 1993 (c. Jane Kenyon). Jane Kenyon was born in Ann Arbor, Michigan. She attended the University of Michigan in her hometown and completed her master’s degree there in 1972. It was there also that she met her husband, the poet Donald Hall, who taught there. Kenyon moved with Hall to Eagle Pond Farm, in New Hampshire where she lived until her untimely death in 1995 at age 47. You can read more of Jane Kenyon’s poetry and find out more about her at the Poetry Foundation Website.

Isaiah 55:1-9

For a brief but thorough overview of the book of Isaiah, see the Summary Article by  Fred Gaiser, Professor of Old Testament at Luther Seminary, St. Paul, MN published at enterthebible.org. Here it is enough to say that these words were spoken by the prophet to the Judean exiles living in Babylon. The conquest of Babylon by Cyrus the Persian opened up the possibility for the exiles to return to their homeland in Palestine. The prophet sees in this development the hand of God at work creating a new future for Judah. The exiles are naturally skeptical. Most have built new lives for themselves in the foreign land. Those born in Babylon know of Israel only through the legends and stories told by their elders. The prophet’s task is to make his fellow exiles see the glorious new future God is offering them. To that end, the prophet employs some of the most beautiful poetic language in the scriptures. He compares the opportunity for return from Babylon to the Exodus from Egypt. He promises that, just as God provided miraculous protection and provision for the Israelites as they traveled through the wilderness from Egypt to the land of Canaan, so God will shelter and protect the exiles as they travel once again to that promised land from captivity in Babylon.

In our lesson for today, God speaks as though he were a street vendor or a carnival barker inviting all those passing by to “come.” The remarkable thing here is that the voice of the Lord goes on to announce that the goods are free. “He who has no money, come, buy and eat.” Verse 1. The banquet is a frequent metaphor for the new life God offers Israel. The point is clear. God is giving a banquet for which there is no admission charge. Only a fool would turn away from such an opportunity! Yet that is precisely the choice Israel will have made should she ignore the opportunity for return to the land promised to her ancestors. This is reminiscent of Jesus’ parable of the ungrateful guests invited to the wedding feast. (Matthew 22:1-14Luke 14:15-24). The reference to milk and wine, foods associated with richness, seems to echo the image of Palestine as the land of “milk and honey.” Deuteronomy 26:9.

This is the only passage in the writings of “Second Isaiah” (Isaiah 40-55) in which King David is mentioned. The prophet is far more interested in the messianic role of Israel as a whole than in any of her leaders. Yet he or she can hardly ignore so prominent a theme in Israel’s faith and history as God’s covenant with David: “Your house and your kingdom shall be made sure forever before me; your throne shall be established forever.” II Samuel 7:16. Yet what hope can this promise offer now that the line of David has been extinguished? As the prophet sees it, the covenant with David is now extended to all the people. God’s “steadfast love” for David is now embodied in an “everlasting covenant” with all Israel. Vs. 3. It should be noted also that Israel has been given as “a covenant to the people, a light to the nations…” Isaiah 42:6. Thus, God opens up the Davidic covenant to the whole of Israel so that Israel might become a channel of God’s salvation to all the nations of the world.

“‘For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are my ways your ways,’ says the Lord.” This verse summarizes well a recurring theme throughout Second Isaiah: That God is God and we are not. One of the more subtle forms of idolatry is the assumption that God’s ways are our ways. Though the so called “Christian Right” has been justly criticized for linking godliness and morality to a narrowly defined set of white, middle class cultural biases, I think that we mainline protestant types are often far too certain about what “social justice” ought to look like and far too eager to identify the will of God with our own partisan projects and agendas. Conservatives should be weary of assuming they know what God desires to conserve. Progressives should be equally weary of assuming they know which way God is progressing. What a hoot it would be to find out at the close of the age that nothing we thought was historic, significant and earth shaking, nothing we have given our lives to achieve ever really mattered. How rich it would be to learn that the real history was taking place in some corner of the earth we never even thought to look-like a stable in Bethlehem.

Psalm 63:1-8

The reference in verse 11 to “the king” rejoicing in God (not included in our reading) and the psalmist’s having “looked upon [God] in the sanctuary” suggest that this psalm was probably composed before the Babylonian Exile and during the reign of the Davidic kings over the Judean monarchy. The longing for God’s presence expressed in verse 1 through the metaphors of hunger and thirst of a person lost in the wilderness are artfully contrasted with the images of feasting on “marrow” and “fat” in verse 5. The psalmist’s need for God is as critical as reliance on food and water. This need is satisfied through praise and thanksgiving in God’s sanctuary. The psalmist has experienced God’s help and protection throughout his/her life and so “clings” to God. Vs. 8. God’s steadfast love (“chesed” in Hebrew) is better than life itself. Vs. 3.

From a strictly liturgical perspective, it is hard to sanction this wanton show of gluttony during Lent, even though we know it is expressed only in a metaphorical sense.  Yet on further reflection, is it not appropriate to ask during this season of repentance whether in fact we actually experience this sort of hunger for God’s presence? If we do not, then perhaps, like the audience of the prophet in our first lesson, we are spending “[]our money for that which is not bread and []our labor for that which does not satisfy.” Isaiah 55:2. Our appetites need instruction. We need to learn to yearn for and crave the things that will sustain us. We need to learn to pray well. For that purpose, I can find no better teachers than the psalmists. I have said it before. I will say it again. Two psalms per day, one in the morning and one at night. There is no surer way to a rich and satisfying life of prayer.

1 Corinthians 10:1-13

Few sections of the Hebrew Scriptures have been as instructive for the church as the forty years of Israel’s wilderness wandering recounted from the middle of Exodus to the end of Deuteronomy. This period between Israel’s deliverance from Egypt and her entry into the Promised Land was a fertile source of instruction, admonition and encouragement for the early church living between the inauguration of God’s kingdom through the ministry, death and resurrection of Jesus and the promise of his coming again in glory. Disciples of Jesus, who remember with thanksgiving the “exodus” accomplished by Jesus in Jerusalem and look forward in anticipation to his return in glory, naturally identify with the Israelites at this period in their history. During these “in between” years Israel was totally dependent upon her God for food, water and protection from enemies. She was tested, tried and prepped for her entry into and occupation of Canaan.

In our reading Paul calls upon the church at Corinth to understand her own day to day existence as a time of testing and sanctification. She needs to understand that her sins of divisiveness, rebellion and lack of love (See post for Sunday, January 31, 2016 ) will produce dire consequences for her. Nevertheless, the Corinthians must also keep in mind that God’s judgment is to be understood as another side of God’s mercy. God wounds in order to heal; God judges in order to induce repentance; God’s wrath is born of God’s zealous passion for the salvation of God’s people. For this reason, Paul asserts that “No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man…” vs. 13. Temptation here is not to be understood as a personal affliction. Paul is speaking here to the church. The temptations afflicting the Corinthian church are those that threaten her oneness in Christ and lure her into the quagmire of destructive conflict, class distinctions and partisan divisions. Just as God forged a group of escaped slaves into a mighty nation in the furnace of wilderness wandering, so the Spirit of God is shaping the Corinthian church, a fractured and divided community, into the Body of Christ where all work as one. The take away: sanctification is a slow, painful and difficult process. Left to ourselves, we are tempted to abandon it. Thankfully, God can be trusted to complete the job of transforming the church into the image of Jesus.

Luke 13:1-9

The two incidents referenced here, Pilate’s killing of an unspecified number of Galileans and the death of eighteen people in the collapse of a tower, are not referenced in any other historical source. That is not surprising. Violent and repressive measures were the modus operendi of the occupying Roman forces. The death of a few Galileans would hardly have been front page news. These Galileans were most likely put to death in Jerusalem during Passover. This is the only occasion on which lay people would be sacrificing their own animals. Longing for independence and resentment at Rome ran high during Passover. For this reason, Pilate made a point of being present in Jerusalem during the feast with additional troops to maintain order. That, of course, only added to the resentment of the people. It is easy to see how violent conflicts between Pilate’s troops and the Passover pilgrims might erupt.

The incident Jesus brought up involving the fall of the tower also appears to have been a relatively minor occurrence. “Silome” was a name given to the reservoir associated with the water supply in Jerusalem fed by the spring of Gihon. The spring was the main source of water for the city. It is referenced in Psalm 46. An aqueduct built during the Bronze Age brought the waters of the spring into the city. According to the Biblical account, it was through this aqueduct or one like it that David and his army were able to invade and conquer Jerusalem without breaching its walls. II Samuel 5:6-10. Interestingly, Pilate oversaw the construction of an aqueduct designed to improve the water supply system for the city. While it is possible that the fall of the tower to which Jesus referred had something to do with this project, there is no positive evidence on that score.

The implication here is that the people bringing to Jesus news of the unfortunate victims of Pilate’s wrath believed those victims were responsible for their plight by reason of their sins. Jesus does not specifically refute them on this point, but states that the Galileans were no more sinful than anyone else. Consequently, these people should not be focusing on what the Galileans may or may not have done, but rather upon turning from their own sin lest they meet the same fate. The same point is made with respect to the victims of the tower collapse. People should not be asking why these eighteen people died, but recognize instead God’s mercy in the very fact that they are still alive and still able to repent.

The parable of the unfruitful fig tree follows. Like this tree that has taken up good soil for three years without producing fruit, Jesus points out that the folks he is addressing are living similarly unfruitful lives. Like the butchered Galileans and the victims of the tower collapse, they deserve God’s punishment. But the ax has not fallen-yet. God has graciously given them time. The question is, how will they use it?

This parable of the fig tree is intriguing. It is tempting to interpret it allegorically with God being the owner of the vineyard and the vinedresser Jesus interceding on our behalf for mercy. But that does not work for a number of reasons. God clearly does not wish for the destruction of anyone. Even when God threatens judgment, it is with the hope that those who are so threatened will turn and repent. The owner of the vineyard is making no such threat and seems to have no hope for the tree. This is simply a business decision. The tree is an investment that has failed for three years to yield a return. It is time to pull the plug and invest elsewhere. The vinedresser’s motives are unclear. Perhaps he sees more potential in the tree than does the owner. In any event, the vinedresser is convinced he can get fruit out of the tree and tries to convince the owner to give him one more year.

As I see it, the parable has but one purpose: to illustrate the point Jesus has made with respect to the two tragedies discussed in the previous section. Fruitless as we are, we have lived to see another day. That is sheer grace. We have done nothing to earn this new day and have no guarantee that we will see another. Note well that we never hear the owner’s response to the vinedresser’s plea for more time. We would like to think that the owner said, “Fine. You think you can make this tree produce some figs? You have one year and one year only. Knock yourself out.” But it is just as likely that he said, “You have to be kidding! Three years this tree has produced nothing. What do you think will be different about year four? Cut it down!” Given that, undeservedly and inexplicably, we have been freely given this day, this hour, this minute-what are we going to do about it?

Sunday, March 3rd

Third Sunday in Lent

Isaiah 55:1-9
Psalm 63:1-8
1 Corinthians 10:1-13
Luke 13:1-9

Prayer of the Day
Eternal God, your kingdom has broken into our troubled world through the life, death, and resurrection of your Son. Help us to hear your word and obey it, and bring your saving love to fruition in our lives through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

As most of you know, I do chapel service for the Trinity School children each Wednesday. This week following the service I heard one of the kids remark that “Pastor said a word he shouldn’t have said.” My mind started racing over every word I might have uttered over the last hour. Decades ago, when I was much younger, I was prone to fits of potty mouth now and again. Though I have long since purged expletives from my regular vocabulary, there are very rare occasions on which I go to say “shoot” and I miss. I was hoping that the child I overheard had not witnessed any such misfire. Not until our school principle pointed out to me that I had sung a song with the kids that had an “alleluia” did I finally understand the nature of my offence. We are, of course, in the midst of Lent, the season of penitence. Alleluias are strictly forbidden-even on Palm Sunday. As the pastor, I should have known better.

So when I read this Sunday’s lesson from Isaiah, I felt strangely comforted. Seems I am not the only one that tends to forget where we are in the church year. “Come, buy and eat,” “buy wine and milk,” “eat what is good,” “delight yourselves in fatness” says the prophet. This is about as far out of step with Lenten discipline as a performance of the Alleluia Chorus from Handel’s Messiah in the midst of Holy Week. It looks as though the lectionary folks blew it big time. I am not sitting alone in the liturgical penalty box for Lenten violations.

Jesus seems also to have been guilty of feasting out of season. He was once asked why the disciples of John the Baptist and the Pharisees fast while his own disciples do not. I gather that since fasting was part of Jesus’ own discipline and instruction, the accusation was not that Jesus and his disciples never fasted. The problem seems to be that they were feasting at a time or season when fasting was expected. Jesus’ responds with a question of his own: “How can you expect the guests to fast when the bridegroom is among them?”

The problem we have observing Lent is this: we know how Jesus’ story ends. We already know that the tomb is empty; that Jesus is alive and present among us. The only reason we can bear to tell the story of Good Friday is that, even then, we cannot erase from our memory the joy of Easter Sunday. We cannot simply pretend we don’t know that God has become inextricably bound up in the messiness of our lives-even in our suffering and dying. The bridegroom is among us. How can we not celebrate? As the song says, “How can I keep from singing?”

Don’t get me wrong. I am as devoted to the observance of Lent as any other good Lutheran. But I cannot pretend I don’t know that Jesus lives. Knowing that Jesus lives cannot help but inspire joy. So I think I will go easy on myself and the makers of the lectionary as well. There are worse sins you can commit than feasting with Jesus or letting an occasional alleluia escape your lips during Lent.

Isaiah 55:1-9

For a brief but thorough overview of the book of Isaiah, see the summary by Fred Gaiser, professor of Old Testament at Luther Seminary published at enterthebible.org. Here it is enough to say that these words were spoken by the prophet to the Judean exiles living in Babylon. The conquest of Babylon by Cyrus the Persian opened up the possibility for the exiles to return to their homeland in Palestine. The prophet sees in this development the hand of God at work creating a new future for Judah. The exiles are naturally skeptical. Most have built new lives for themselves in the foreign land. Those born in Babylon know of Israel only through the legends and stories told by their elders. The prophet’s task is to make his fellow exiles see the glorious new future God is offering them. To that end, the prophet employs some of the most beautiful poetic language in the scriptures. He compares the opportunity for return from Babylon to the Exodus from Egypt. He promises that, just as God provided miraculous protection and provision for the Israelites as they traveled through the wilderness from Egypt to the land of Canaan, so God will shelter and protect the exiles as they travel once again to that promised land from captivity in Babylon.

In our lesson for today, God speaks as though he were a street vendor or a carnival barker inviting all those passing by to “come.” The remarkable thing here is that the voice of the Lord goes on to announce that the goods are free. “He who has no money, come, buy and eat.” Verse 1. The banquet is a frequent metaphor for the new life God offers Israel. The point is clear. God is giving a banquet for which there is no admission charge. Only a fool would turn away from such an opportunity! Yet that is precisely the choice Israel will have made should she ignore the opportunity for return to the land promised to her ancestors. This is reminiscent of Jesus’ parable of the ungrateful guests invited to the wedding feast. (Matthew 22:1-14; Luke 14:15-24). The reference to milk and wine, foods associated with richness, seems to echo the image of Palestine as the land of “milk and honey.” Deuteronomy 26:9.

This is the only passage in the writings of “Second Isaiah” (Isaiah 40-55) in which King David is mentioned. The prophet is far more interested in the messianic role of Israel as a whole than in any of her leaders. Yet he or she can hardly ignore so prominent a theme in Israel’s faith and history as God’s covenant with David: “Your house and your kingdom shall be made sure forever before me; your throne shall be established forever.” II Samuel 7:16. Yet what hope can this promise offer now that the line of David has been extinguished? As the prophet sees it, the covenant with David is now extended to all the people. God’s “steadfast love” for David is now embodied in an “everlasting covenant” with all Israel. Vs. 3. It should be noted also that Israel has been given as “a covenant to the people, a light to the nations…” Isaiah 42:6. Thus, God opens up the Davidic covenant to the whole of Israel so that Israel might become a channel of God’s salvation to all the nations of the world.

“‘For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are my ways your ways,’ says the Lord.” This verse summarizes well a recurring theme throughout Second Isaiah: That God is God and we are not. One of the more subtle forms of idolatry is the assumption that God’s ways are our ways. Though the so called “Christian Right” has been justly criticized for linking godliness and morality to a narrowly defined set of cultural biases, I think that we mainline protestant types are often far too certain about what “social justice” ought to look like and far too eager to identify the will of God with our own partisan projects and agendas. Conservatives should be weary of assuming they know what God desires to conserve. Progressives should be equally weary of assuming they know which way God is progressing. What a hoot it would be to find out at the close of the age that nothing we thought was historic, significant and earth shaking, nothing we have given our lives to achieve ever really mattered. How rich it would be to learn that the real history was taking place in some corner of the earth we never even thought to look-like a stable in Bethlehem.

Psalm 63:1-8

The reference in verse 11 to “the king” rejoicing in God (not included in our reading) and the psalmist’s having “looked upon [God] in the sanctuary” suggest that this psalm was probably composed before the Babylonian Exile and during the reign of the Davidic kings over the Judean monarchy. The longing for God’s presence expressed in verse 1 through the metaphors of hunger and thirst of a person lost in the wilderness are artfully contrasted with the images of feasting on “marrow” and “fat” in verse 5. The psalmist’s need for God is as critical as reliance on food and water. It is satisfied through praise and thanksgiving in God’s sanctuary. The psalmist has experienced God’s help and protection throughout his/her life and so “clings” to God’s right hand. God’s steadfast love (“chesed” in Hebrew) is better than life itself.

Once again, from a strictly liturgical perspective, it is hard to sanction this wanton show of gluttony during Lent, even though we know it is expressed only in a metaphorical sense.  Yet on further reflection, it is not inappropriate to ask during this season of repentance whether in fact we actually experience this sort of hunger for God’s presence. If we do not, then perhaps, like the audience of the prophet in our first lesson, we are spending “[]our money for that which is not bread and []our labor for that which does not satisfy.” Isaiah 55:2. Our appetites need instruction. We need to learn to yearn for and crave the things that will sustain us. We need to learn to pray well. For that purpose, I can find no better teachers than the psalmists. I have said it before. I will say it again. Two psalms per day, one in the morning and one at night. There is no surer way to a rich and satisfying life of prayer.

1 Corinthians 10:1-13

Few sections of the Hebrew Scriptures have proved as instructive for the church as the forty years of Israel’s wilderness wandering between her deliverance from Egypt and her entry into the promised land. Disciples of Jesus, who remember with thanksgiving the “exodus” accomplished by Jesus in Jerusalem and look forward in anticipation to his return in glory, naturally identify with the Israelites at this period in their history. During these “in between” years Israel was totally dependent upon her God for food, water and protection from enemies. She was tested, tried and prepped for her entry into and occupation of Canaan.

In this passage Paul calls upon the church at Corinth to understand her own day to day existence as a time of testing and sanctification. She needs to understand that her sins of divisiveness, rebellion and lack of love (See post for Sunday, January 20, 2013 ) will produce dire consequences for her. Nevertheless, the Corinthians must also keep in mind that God’s judgment is to be understood as another side of God’s mercy. God wounds in order to heal; God judges in order to induce repentance; God’s wrath is born of God’s zealous passion for the salvation of God’s people. For this reason, Paul asserts that “No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man…” Temptation here is not to be understood as a personal affliction. Paul is speaking here to the church. The temptations afflicting the Corinthian church are those that threaten her oneness in Christ and lure her into the quagmire of destructive conflict, class distinctions and partisan divisions. Just as God forged a group of escaped slaves into a mighty nation in the furnace of wilderness wandering, so the Spirit of God is shaping the Corinthian church, a fractured and divided community, into the Body of Christ where all work as one. The take away: sanctification is a slow, painful and difficult process. Left to ourselves, we are tempted to abandon it. Thankfully, God can be trusted to complete the job of transforming the church into the image of Jesus.

Luke 13:1-9

The two incidents referenced here, Pilate’s execution of an unspecified number of Galileans and the death of eighteen people in the collapse of a tower, are not referenced in any other historical source. That is not surprising. The Galileans were most likely put to death in Jerusalem during Passover. This is the only occasion on which lay people would be sacrificing their own animals. Longing for independence and resentment at Rome ran high during Passover. For this reason, Pilate made a point of being present in Jerusalem during the feast with additional troops to maintain order. This, of course, only added to the resentment of the people. It is easy to see how violent conflicts between Pilate’s troops and the Passover pilgrims could erupt. Such incidents were probably so common as to be hardly newsworthy.

The incident Jesus brought up involving the fall of the tower also appears to have been a relatively minor occurrence. “Silome” was a name given to the reservoir associated with the water supply in Jerusalem fed by the spring of Gihon. The spring was the main source of water for the city. It is referenced in Psalm 46. An aqueduct built during the Bronze Age brought the waters of the spring into the city. According to the Biblical account, it was through this aqueduct or one like it that David and his army were able to invade and conquer Jerusalem without breaching its walls. Interestingly, Pilate oversaw the construction of an aqueduct designed to improve the water supply system for the city. While it is possible that the fall of the tower to which Jesus referred had something to do with this project, there is no positive evidence on that score.

The implication here is that the people bringing to Jesus news of the unfortunate victims of Pilate’s wrath believed those victims were responsible for their plight by reason of their sins. Jesus does not specifically refute them on this point, but states that the Galileans were no more sinful than anyone else. Consequently, these people should not be focusing on what the Galileans may or may not have done, but rather upon turning from their own sin lest they meet the same fate. The same point is made with respect to the victims of the tower collapse. People should not be asking why these eighteen people died, but recognize instead God’s mercy in the very fact that they are still alive and still able to repent.

The parable of the unfruitful fig tree follows. Like this tree that has taken up good soil for three years without producing fruit, Jesus points out that the folks he is addressing are living similarly unfruitful lives. Like the butchered Galileans and the victims of the tower collapse, they deserve God’s punishment. But the ax has not fallen-yet. God has graciously given them time. The question is, how will they use it?

This parable of the fig tree is intriguing. It is tempting to interpret it allegorically with God being the owner of the vineyard and the vinedresser Jesus interceding on our behalf for mercy. But that does not work for a number of reasons. God clearly does not wish for the destruction of anyone. Even when God threatens judgment, it is with the hope that those who are so threatened will turn and repent. The owner of the vineyard is making no such threat and seems to have no hope for the tree. This is simply a business decision. The tree is an investment that has failed for three years to yield a return. It is time to pull the plug and invest elsewhere. The vinedresser’s motives are unclear. Perhaps he sees more potential in the tree than does the owner. In any event, the vinedresser is convinced he can get fruit out of the tree and tries to convince the owner to give him one more year.

As I see it, the parable has but one purpose: to illustrate the point Jesus has made with respect to the two tragedies discussed in the previous section. Fruitless as we are, we have lived to see another day. That is sheer grace. We have done nothing to earn this new day and have no guarantee that we will see another. Note well that we never hear the owner’s response to the vinedresser’s plea for more time. We would like to think that the owner said, “Fine. You think you can make this tree produce some figs? You have one year and one year only. Knock yourself out.” But it is just as likely that he said, “You have to be kidding! Three years this tree has produced nothing. What do you think will be different about year four? Cut it down!” Given that, undeservedly and inexplicably, we have been freely given this day, this hour, this minute-what are we going to do about it?

Sunday, February 24th

Second Sunday in Lent

Genesis 15:1-12, 17-18
Psalm 27
Philippians 3:17–4:1
Luke 13:31-35

Prayer of the Day
God of the covenant, in the mystery of the cross you promise everlasting life to the world. Gather all peoples into your arms, and shelter us with your mercy, that we may rejoice in the life we share in your Son, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

“O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, killing the prophets and stoning those who are sent to you! How often I would have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, but you would not! Behold, your house is forsaken.” Luke 13:35.

New Testament scholars are in virtual agreement that the Gospel of Luke was composed anywhere from fifteen to thirty years after the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple by Rome in 70 C.E. Many of them are also inclined to view this saying less as a reflection of Jesus’ sentiments upon his arrival in the city toward the close of his ministry and more as the early church’s effort to provide a theological explanation for the Temple’s destruction. No doubt Luke’s telling of the story is colored by the church’s experience of historical events that followed the ministry of Jesus. That said, I don’t think it is possible to divorce Jesus from his dire judgment upon the Holy City. All four gospels contain Jesus’ words of judgment against the Temple and its corrupt leadership. One of the more serious charges leveled against Jesus at his trial was his alleged claim that he would “destroy this temple that is made with hands, and in three days…build another temple not made with hands.” Mark 15:58. Furthermore, Jesus was not the first prophet to pronounce a judgment of destruction against Jerusalem. Jeremiah and Micah similarly warned that, however much God might treasure the Temple and the city of David, neither could be used as a shield against God’s punishment for injustice and unrighteousness. The judgment against the Holy city brought about in Jeremiah’s time by the Babylonian invasion served as a solemn warning for all subsequent generations. It is hardly surprising that Jesus should draw upon this prophetic tradition in speaking to the Jerusalem of his day.

Yet Jesus takes no delight in pronouncing Jerusalem’s doom. He does not speak here as an angry firebrand. His mood is sad more than it is angry; heartbroken more than outraged; tired more than inspired. He is a man resigned to a violent death at the hands of his own people for the sake of a new age he will not live to see. Unlike the parallel account in chapter 23 of Matthew, Jesus does not weep. He just takes the next step in his journey to Jerusalem toward which he “set his face” back in Chapter 9. Jesus displays a grim determination to complete this race in which he is hopelessly behind and cannot hope to win. And he calls us to follow him.

This isn’t a very attractive picture of discipleship. But there are plenty of disciples of Jesus who will tell you that it is often accurate. St. Paul preached the Body of Christ throughout his ministry. What he got was churches like the one in Corinth-fraught with conflict, torn by power struggles and unable to comprehend the good news for which Jesus lived and died. I wish I could tell you about all the aid workers I have met over the years who have spent their lives in refugee camps throughout the world sacrificing ties of family and friendship at home, sacrificing their health and safety abroad for wages that ensure they will never live far above the poverty line. When their service is done they often leave a situation that has deteriorated further despite their faithful efforts. There are millions of church leaders throughout the world who volunteer their time, efforts and resources to build up the Church of Christ after spending a full day at their “real” jobs. These are the folks on the church council; the Sunday School teachers, youth leaders and trustees. Some of them toil away in churches that, in spite of their best efforts, are losing membership and financial support. Often times, they go without proper recognition and even face unjustified criticism. That is why I try my best to make these folks understand how precious and important they are. When people ask me why fewer and fewer people are involved in the church these days, I am tempted to reply that I often wonder why anyone at all is still there.

I hope we are all still here for the right reason-the same reason Jesus continued putting one foot in front of the other on the way to the cross. I hope we keep plodding on because we believe that God is serious about creating a new heaven and a new earth. I hope we struggle forward because we believe that God will finish what our lives can barely begin. I hope we embrace the cross because we understand that it is the shape the reign of God must take in a world that kills the prophets and stones the messengers of reconciliation sent to it. I hope we remain faithful because we believe that the prophetic word finally will be heard. I hope we are driven by the conviction that God is able to raise up the shattered pieces of our broken and seemingly ineffective efforts to be disciples just as he raised up the broken and lifeless Body of Jesus from the grave.

Genesis 15:1-12, 17-18

Why would a man take a bunch of animals, cut them in half and make a path through the two halves of each of the bloody carcasses? In order to answer this question, we need to take a trip back in time to the Bronze Age. Society is made up of city states that owe their allegiance to larger kingdoms that in time will become the empires of the Iron Age. Obviously, such alliances are not agreements between equals. The ruler of a smaller state received a promise of non-aggression from the larger kingdom in return for payment of tribute and a pledge of military support if required. If this sounds rather like a protection racket, it is because that is essentially what the agreements were. These lopsided alliances were sealed by covenant ceremonies in which numerous animals were slain and cut in two. The subject king would then swear absolute allegiance, promise tribute and pledge military support to the dominant king. The dominant king would then force the subject king to walk on the bloody path between the severed animal parts. It was supposed to produce the same effect as the horse head next to which Jack Woltz woke up in the movie, The Godfather. “See these hacked up animals little king? This is what happens to little kings that try to cross the Big King? Any questions?”

In Sunday’s lesson from Genesis, God stands the whole notion of covenant making on its head. Abraham asked God “how am I to know that I shall possess [the land of Canaan]?” God’s response is to make a covenant with Abraham. Usually, it is the weaker, vassal king who seeks covenant protection from the dominant king. But here God is the one seeking a covenant with Abraham. In near eastern politics, the weaker king is the one who makes all the promises. In this case, God is the one who makes an oath to Abraham. Instead of forcing Abraham to walk between the mangled carcasses, God passes along the bloody path saying, in effect, “Abraham, if I fail to keep my promise to give you a child, a land and a blessing, may I be hacked in pieces like these animals.”

This remarkable story illustrates what one of my seminary professors, Fred Gaiser, once said: “The Old Testament tends toward incarnation.” The New Testament witness is that the Word of God became flesh, that is, became vulnerable to the rending and slaughter experienced by the sacrificial animals used in the covenant ceremony. In fact, we can go further and say that God’s flesh was torn apart, God’s heart was broken and that this rending of God’s flesh was the cost of God’s faithfulness to the covenant. So understood, it is possible to recognize the cross in this strange and wonderful tale from dawn of history.

Psalm 27

The scholarly consensus seems to be that this psalm actually consists of two psalms, the first being a prayer of trust not unlike Psalm 23 including verses 1-6. The second is a lament consisting of verses 7-14. However that might be, I still believe the psalm fits together nicely as a unit. It is precisely because the psalmist has such great confidence in God’s willingness and power to give protection that the psalmist feels free to cry out for that very protection in times of danger. Though as previously noted the commentators characterize verses 7-14 as a lament, it concludes with an affirmation of confidence in God’s anticipated salvation and an admonition to “be strong, and let your heart take courage; yea, wait for the Lord.”

Two things are noteworthy. First, this psalm is focused on dangers posed by enemies. By enemies the psalmist does not mean people who are merely disagreeable or less than friendly. These are people who “breathe out violence.” The psalmist’s response to these enemies is prayer. He or she does not strap on a six shooter with the intent of “taking care of business.” Instead, s/he calls upon the Lord to deal with the enemy. This is the characteristic approach of the psalms. Even when the psalmist expresses a distinct desire to see the enemy punished in very violent and graphic terms, the psalmist leaves the business of retribution to God. That, of course, is precisely in line with what Jesus teaches his disciples in the Sermon on the Mount.

Second, the last verse of the psalm is very telling. The psalmist encourages his hearers to “wait for the Lord.” The odd thing about the psalms is that, although they are prayers addressed to God, they often contain admonitions from God in the psalmists’ mouths. Sometimes the psalmists seem to be conscious of an audience listening in on their prayers. God hardly needs to be reminded to “wait on the Lord.”  Biblical prayer is a dialogical process. The psalmists’ outpouring of prayer to God is only one side. God responds to the psalmists. Sometimes these responses are oracles delivered by a prophet or priest that have become imbedded in the psalm. See, e.g., Psalm 60:6-12. Often these prayers are sung as praises by the psalmist in corporate worship where they give encouragement to the assembly. See Psalm 27:6. For Israel, prayer was never an entirely personal matter. The confidence of this psalmist is drawn as much from God’s faithfulness to Israel throughout history as from his or her own experience. So also, the psalmists’ personal struggles become a public arena for God to demonstrate his compassion and salvation to Israel.

Philippians 3:17–4:1

To repeat briefly what I have said about Paul’s Letter to the Philippians in the past, this is not one letter but three.

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

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

Phil C = Phil 3:2 – 4:3; 4:8-9; 4:21-23   (a stern warning against the rival missionaries who require the circumcision of Gentiles)

This Sunday’s reading comes from the third letter warning the Philippians to beware of the teachings of rival missionaries who were evidently teaching gentile Christians in Paul’s congregations that they needed circumcision in order to be full members of the church. In years past, scholars referred to these folks as “Judaizers,” but that name is somewhat misleading. The false missionaries with which Paul was contending were probably not Jews at all. Most likely, they were local people, probably gentiles who had received circumcision and took pride in the depth of commitment it demonstrated. Paul responds by pointing out that if such things as circumcision were really a source of pride, he could make a much stronger case on his own behalf than his adversaries. In verses 4-6 of chapter 3, Paul points out that he has a real Jewish ancestry that he can trace; circumcision done strictly in accordance with the law and a first rate Hebrew education. But of all this St. Paul says, “I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.”

Knowing all of this makes it a little easier to stomach Paul’s call to imitate him. Paul is not just being a pompoms ass here (though I suspect that he could be just that at times). It isn’t his moral example or his sterling character that Paul calls us to imitate. Rather, he calls us to imitate his indifference to racial identity, cultural status and religious achievement. You don’t come into the church through your success in living as an observant Jew anymore than you win God’s love by living as an observant Lutheran. You come into the church by Jesus’ invitation. Everything else you bring with you is just excess baggage.

Luke 13:31-35

This encounter of Jesus with the Pharisees needs to be placed in the larger context of Luke’s story about Jesus. Recall how two Sundays ago Jesus stood with Moses and Elijah discussing the “Exodus” he was to accomplish at Jerusalem. From that point on, it was clear that something big was about to occur in the Holy City. So when we read in Luke 9:51 that Jesus “set his face to go to Jerusalem,” it is clear that the time is at hand. From here on out, everything that occurs is leading up to the final confrontation that we know is approaching with every step Jesus takes toward his goal.

The Pharisees warn Jesus that Herod Antipas is seeking his life and urge him to flee. We do not know their motivation. Though the Pharisees were often hostile toward Jesus, this was not always the case in Luke’s gospel. In fact, in the very next chapter Jesus is invited to dinner at the home of a very prominent Pharisee. Moreover, the Pharisees had no great love for Herod. However much they might have disagreed with Jesus over any number of issues, Jesus was still a Jew that cared deeply about the Torah. Herod was a thug and a bully appointed by Rome who cared little about anything beyond his own comfort. As between the two, it is likely that the Pharisees would have sympathized with Jesus.

Of course, it is also possible that the Pharisees were trying to intimidate Jesus. Perhaps they felt that raising the specter of Herod might frighten him away from Judea and back into the more remote parts of Galilee where he would be someone else’s problem. In either case, Jesus will not be deterred from the course he set out in chapter 9. So far from fleeing, Jesus sends the Pharisees back to Herod with his travel itinerary.

Jesus’ lament over Jerusalem is one of the most moving passages in the gospels. We seldom get a glance into the head of Jesus. It seems to me that all four gospel writers are intent on preventing us from doing that. We are almost never told how Jesus felt or what his thoughts were about the things taking place around him. This passage marks one of the rare exceptions to that rule. Unlike the account in Matthew, Luke does not tell us that Jesus wept over the city. Nevertheless, his lament is filled with compassion. Jesus is resigned, it seems, to failure. The city that kills the prophets and stones the messengers sent to it will deal likewise with Jesus. Its people will not be gathered together by Jesus. Jesus is going to die without seeing the consummation of the reign of God to which he has given his life.

As indicated in my introductory remarks, New Testament scholars tend to read Jesus’ words of judgment against Jerusalem as an attempt to provide a theological explanation for the destruction of the Temple by Rome in 70 C.E. Again, I do not doubt that Luke had this event in mind while composing his gospel. Still, I believe that Jesus’ own remarks about the Temple and the wealth of prophetic tradition from the Hebrew Scriptures were Luke’s principle sources of inspiration. As pointed out previously, all four gospels have Jesus uttering prophetic words of judgment against the Temple and its corrupt worship practices. Moreover, the prophets were frequently unsparing in their criticism of the Temple and their threats of judgment. See, e.g., Jeremiah 12:7; 22:5. Consequently, I believe that Jesus’ address here in its Lucan context is directed more generally to Jerusalem and the people it represents who have a long history of resisting the messengers of the Lord calling them to repentance. This saying should not be read, in my opinion, to suggest that the destruction of Jerusalem by Rome was God’s punishment specifically for Jesus’ crucifixion.

Jesus’ statement, “How often I would have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood,” calls to mind a host of images from the Hebrew Scriptures. See e.g., Deuteronomy 32:11; Psalm 17:8; Psalm 36:7; Psalm 57:1; Psalm 91:4; Ruth 2:12. The shelter Jesus promises affords the kind of protection proclaimed in Psalm 27, our Psalm for this Sunday. Jesus makes it clear to us that he knows he is walking into a conflict that will claim his life. He does so with the confidence that God will see to the completion of what his “Exodus” in Jerusalem will begin and that the people will one day cry out, “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.”

February 17th

First Sunday in Lent

Deuteronomy 26:1-11
Psalm 91:1-2, 9-16
Romans 10:8b-13
Luke 4:1-13

Prayer of the Day
O Lord God, you led your people through the wilderness and brought them to the promised land. Guide us now, so that, following your Son, we may walk safely through the wilderness of this world toward the life you alone can give, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

The devil didn’t show up with a bottle of Jack Daniels and a stack of porn videos when he came to tempt Jesus in the wilderness. Turns out neither God nor the devil have much interest in the sins that rally our guardians of morality to march on Washington, boycott consumer products and bombard television networks with letters of protest. The stakes here are much higher than wardrobe malfunctions, nasty words and irreverent behavior. Real temptations, those that go to the very depths of our being don’t entice us to choose evil. Most of us are smart enough not to do that. For those who aren’t, the devil doesn’t need to waste his precious time tempting them. They will find the way to hell on their own. The devil typically appears as “an angel of light,” to use St. Paul’s phrase. Rather than openly advocating evil, he promises an easier, more cost effective way to achieve the good. That is precisely the tactic he uses on Jesus. “Why wait for God to provide bread when you can have it now? Why waste your breath preaching a kingdom for which all must wait when there is a military solution that can bring it into existence today? Why spend years forming faith through teaching the practices of discipleship when with one flying leap you can perform a miracle so grand that no one can possibly doubt you? The cross is a slow, inefficient and unreliable way of establishing the reign of God. Do it my way! It’s faster. It’s cheaper. It’s easier.”

I think that perhaps the greatest temptations we face are impatience and laziness. In the corporate world, you are expected to demonstrate immediate results in the most cost effective way possible. Don’t expect financing for a new business unless you have a business plan supported by raw data demonstrating that your company will begin paying off by a date certain-and not in the distant future. We expect elected officials to have some tangible accomplishments to show us within the first one hundred days in office. Such impatience finds it hard to tolerate a God who waits 400 years to deliver the children of Israel from slavery. What is wrong with a God who waits until a woman’s ninetieth year to give her a child? Why did Jesus find it necessary to terry two full days while his friend Lazarus languished on his death bed? The God of the Bible appears to operate in a way that is costly, inefficient and time consuming.

The ancient practices of Lent are similarly impractical. Does anyone really believe that prayer prevents hurricanes, earthquakes and blizzards? What can you show for having fasted? How can a single person giving alms make even a small dent in hunger throughout the world? The answer to all of these questions is simple.  Practicality is not the point. Lenten disciplines were not designed to change the world. They were designed to change us. More specifically, they are designed to help us overcome lazy resignation and learn patience and persistence in faithful discipleship. Prayer, when it is modeled on the prayers of scripture, teaches us to love and long for the reign of God above all else. Fasting teaches us that we do not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God. Giving alms trains our hearts toward thankfulness and generosity. The practices of Lent are tools we give the Spirit for the work of transforming our souls. Of course, transformed people inevitably transform the world around them. But that world transforming energy is a fruit of the Spirit, not the work of our own hands. It is driven by the sometimes hidden purposes of God and not by our impassioned notions of what the world needs. So let us begin our Lenten journey with prayer, fasting and alms, confident that God is at work in us and in the world bringing to fulfillment all that has been promised in Christ.

Deuteronomy 26:1-11

This is the passage that I love to refer to as the “First Thanksgiving.” Moses is addressing the children of Israel as they stand at the threshold of the Promised Land. The refrain “remember” has been reverberating throughout the previous chapters and it will be heard in the succeeding ones as well. Forgetfulness is the greatest danger Israel faces as she begins to settle into the land of Canaan.  There is a very real possibility that the lessons learned throughout the years of wilderness wandering will be lost once the people are in possession of productive land. “Take heed lest you forget the Lord your God.” “Beware lest you say in your heart, ‘My power and the might of my hand have gotten me this wealth’” Deuteronomy 8:11,17. Moses knows that the most potent antidote to arrogance and greed is memory. Therefore, he outlines a liturgy for the Israelites to recite at each presentation of “first fruits” from the annual harvest. You might call it a sort of “creed.”

The Israelites are to recite their history. They are to remember that they were sojourners, “few in number.” They are to recall that “the Egyptians treated us harshly and afflicted us; and laid upon us hard bondage.” They are to remember how “we cried to the Lord the God of our fathers, and the Lord heard our voice and saw our affliction, our toil, and our oppression.” This is significant because God would have Israel know that she was not delivered from bondage merely to become another Egypt. Unlike Egypt, Israel is to “Love the sojourner therefore; for you were sojourners in the land of Egypt.” Deuteronomy 10:19. “Justice and only justice you shall follow, that you may live and inherit the land which the Lord your God gives you.” Deuteronomy 16:20. “If there is among you a poor man, one of your brethren, in any of your towns within your land which the Lord your God gives you, you shall not harden your heart against your poor brother, but you shall open your hand to him, and lend him sufficient for his need, whatever it may be.” Deuteronomy 15:7-8.

In the final verses of this reading, Israel is commanded to “rejoice in all the good which the Lord your God has given you and to your house…” vs. 11. This, by the way, is where I got my inspiration for this year’s Lenten theme: “The Joy of Repentance.” The opposite of faith is not doubt, but ungratefulness. When you start thinking that everything you have is the fruit of your own toil, you start to resent having to help out a poor neighbor. “I worked for it. It’s mine to do with as I please.” You also start to worry about losing what you have. “After all, if everything I have has been achieved by my own efforts, what will happen when my efforts fail? Where will my daily bread come from when I can no longer extract it from the ground by the sweat of my own brow? Can I afford to offer up the first fruits when I don’t know what tomorrow will bring? Can I afford to lend a hand to my neighbor when I might not even have enough for my own needs?” This is the kind of worry, anxiety and fear that always comes of imagining that ‘My power and the might of my hand have gotten me this wealth.’ That, by the way, is why Jesus would not take the devil’s challenge to prove that he is God’s Son by making bread for himself out of stones. It is precisely because one is a child of God that he or she need not resort to such measures. Faith knows that “The eyes of all look to thee and thou givest them their food in due season. Thou openest thy hand, thou satisfiest the desire of every living thing.” Psalm 145:15-16. God did not create a world of scarcity filled with desperate creatures fighting for an ever smaller slice of a shrinking pie. This is how the devil would have us view the world. Jesus recognizes the devil’s world view for what it is-a lie.

Psalm 91:1-2, 9-16

We get the devil’s spin on this psalm from our gospel lesson (Luke 4:9-12).  Unfortunately, this prayer extolling the protective love of God for those who trust in him is open to just such a demonic distortion. There is no shortage of religion in book stores, on the airwaves and pulsing through the internet promising that the right kind of faith in God insulates a person from suffering. The Prayer of Jabez bv Bruce Wilkinson is a prime example. Though I am probably guilty of oversimplifying Mr. Wilkinson’s argument, his basic claim is that extraordinary blessings flow from praying the prayer of a biblical character mentioned briefly in the book of I Chronicles by the name of Jabez. The entire scriptural basis for this assertion is I Chronicles 4:9-10: “Jabez was more honorable than his brothers. His mother had named him Jabez, saying, ‘I gave birth to him in pain.’ Jabez cried out to the God of Israel, saying, ‘Oh, that you would bless me and enlarge my territory! Let your hand be with me, and keep me from harm so that I will be free from pain.’ And God granted his request.” This snippet of narrative comes in the midst of a lengthy chronology with no supporting context. Jabez’ mother gave birth to him in pain. I am not sure what this means as childbirth typically does not happen without some pain for Mom. Perhaps this was a particularly difficult delivery. All we know about Jabez himself is that he was more honorable than his brothers. But since we don’t know his brothers, this assessment is hard to evaluate. Is this like being the smartest of the Three Stooges? Jabez prays that his territory will be enlarged so that he will be protected from pain-a seeming non sequitur. I must confess that I really don’t know quite what to make of Jabez. I think I will continue to get my instruction on prayer from Jesus.

But I digress. The point here is that we should not let the devil snooker us the way he did Mr. Wilkinson. This psalm is not telling us that faith in God is a magical antidote to life’s slings and arrows. If you read the psalm carefully from the beginning, you will discover that it was composed by one who has seen combat, lived through epidemics and faced mortal enemies. The psalmist knows that the dangers out there in the world are very real and that life is not a cake walk. You might well prevail over lions and adders, but that does not mean you will come through without any scratches. The Lord promises, “I will be with him in trouble,” which can only mean that trouble will come the psalmist’s way. This psalm, then, must be interpreted not as the promise of a magic charm (the devil’s exegesis), but as a word of assurance that God’s redemptive purpose is at work in the lives of all who place their ultimate trust in God’s promises. As such, it is a word of profound comfort.

You will note that from verse 14 on the voice changes. In the previous verses the speaker appears to be that of the psalmist. But the last three verses are words of God declaring a promise of protection to those who know and trust in him. It is possible that this last section of the psalm constitutes an oracle proclaimed by a temple priest or prophet to the psalmist as s/he was seeking assurance in time of trouble and that the previous verses were inspired by the psalmist’s experiencing the fulfillment of these words of promise in his or her own life.

Romans 10:8b-13

In this chapter Paul is dealing with what I believe is the foremost concern of his heart, namely, the relationship between Israel and the church. I cannot overemphasize how important it is for us to recognize that Paul’s letters were written long before Christianity existed as a religion separate from Judaism. Throughout Paul’s lifetime, the church was a movement within Judaism asserting that Jesus of Nazareth was the longed for messiah foretold in the Hebrew Scriptures. In this letter to the church in Rome Paul is arguing on two fronts. Over against his Jewish critics, Paul asserts that Israel’s messiah is not for Israel alone. As Paul rightly points out, Israel is called to be a light to the nations pointing to the reign of Israel’s God over all creation. It follows, then, that the salvation offered through Israel’s messiah must be available to the gentiles as well. While Paul’s critics would probably agree with him to this extent, they parted company with Paul’s assertion that the gentiles could be received as covenant partners with Israel’s God without effectively becoming Jews. As a practical matter, to be included among God’s covenant people gentiles would need to undergo circumcision and to observe all mandatory Jewish ritual and dietary laws. Paul maintains, however, that the gentiles come into the covenant as gentiles through baptism into Jesus Christ. This is so because the covenant stretching back to Abraham is based not on circumcision or ritual obedience, but on faith in God’s promises.

Over against the gentile members of the church in Rome, Paul is careful to remind them that they are “wild olive branches” that have been grafted into the vine that is Israel. Romans 11:13-24. They must therefore never look with contempt upon the people of Israel-even those who do not acknowledge Jesus as messiah. They are not to imagine that God has rejected Israel. Romans 11:1 To the contrary, “the gifts and the call of God are irrevocable.” Romans 11:29. You can reject God, but you cannot make God reject you. All of this is important for understanding the lesson for this Sunday. The emphasis is on the power of the “word [that] is very near you, on your lips and in your heart (that is, the word of faith which we preach).” Free will has nothing to do with it. Belief in Jesus is the fruit of the Spirit working through the word of God. It is not a decision we make on our own. As Paul states earlier in chapter eight, “For those whom [God] foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son…” Romans 8:29. Consequently, one need not fret over whether and to what degree one “truly believes” or “sincerely confesses” Jesus as Lord. As we read a few verses later, “faith comes through what is heard, and what is heard comes by the preaching of Christ.” Romans 10:17. If the word is there, it will take care of the rest.

Luke 4:1-13

We have touched on the first and last temptations of Jesus in our discussions of the prior lessons. So let’s focus on the middle one. “And the devil took him up, and showed him all the kingdoms of the world in a moment of time, and said to him, ‘To you I will give all this authority and their glory; for it has been delivered to me, and I give it to whom I will. If you, then, will worship me, it shall be yours.’” You have to wonder why, if the devil really possesses such authority, he is willing to give it up. Perhaps he is lying. Maybe the devil does not really have the goods he promises to deliver. That is possible. The devil’s proclivity for falsehood is well known. More likely, however, the devil realizes that the power he is offering Jesus doesn’t really amount to much. Raw power is useful for subduing the world, but it is not particularly effective in ruling it. There has not been an empire yet that has been able to hang onto its vast holdings. Assyria, Babylon, Persia, Greece and Rome eventually collapsed under the weight of their oppressive governmental machinery. In our own day we have seen the implosion of the Soviet Union. Our own nation, the United States, has learned through blood shed in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan the limits of military power for securing the peace and security for which we yearn.

Still and all, the power of the sword entices us. It is easy to imagine that, in the right hands, such power can be used for good. Of course, just as you cannot make an omlet without cracking a few eggs, you can’t rule an empire without cracking a few heads. Collateral damage is the clinical word for the death and disfigurement of innocents that get caught in the crossfire from the shootout at the OK Corral. Tragic, to be sure, but it is a small price to pay for freedom, democracy, justice, peace, liberation or whatever noble objective you are trying to achieve. The ends justify the means. And even if they don’t,  at the very least, by seizing the devil’s offer, Jesus would have prevented the power of the sword from falling into the wrong hands. Wouldn’t you rather have Jesus as emperor than Nero? Isn’t it better that nuclear weapons remain firmly in the hands of decent people than fall into the hands of terrorists or criminals? If you don’t take hold of the power Satan offers, there are plenty of scary people out there who will take it in a New York minute. It is all well and good to sing, “I’m gonna lay down my sword and shield, down by the river side,” but shouldn’t you be a little bit concerned about who might pick it up?

Of course, there is a price to be paid here. You can’t get the devil’s goods without paying the devil his due. The price of imperial power is the worship of Satan. That is where the power of the sword always leads us. Jesus knows that the ends never justify the means. How can they when we don’t even know what the ends are? We seldom, if ever, know what the outcome of our simplest actions will be. We cannot predict the effects of our words that so frequently lead to hurt and misunderstanding despite our best intentions. We often do not foresee the long term consequences of decisions that seemed right and sensible at the time. We simply do not control nor can we foresee the ends of our actions. The means are all that we do understand and control. Jesus tells us that the means are all important and that they will shape the ends of everything we do.

Jesus is not interested in the power of the sword because he knows that it cannot deliver the reign of God he comes to initiate. Jesus is not interested in winning battles. He is interested in winning hearts. Jesus will die for the kingdom of God, but he will not kill for it. Jesus does not want “every knee to bend and every tongue confess” him as Lord only because they fear that they will get a rifle butt in the teeth if they don’t. Jesus will spend whatever time it takes to win every last heart to faith and obedience. Victory will be painfully slow in coming. Reconciliation takes a lot more work, patience, sacrifice and time than a blitzkrieg campaign of shock and awe. Reconciliation, however, is the way of Jesus. There are no shortcuts to the reign of God.