Tag Archives: preaching

Sunday, April 23rd

SECOND SUNDAY OF EASTER

Acts 2:14a, 22–32
Psalm 16
1 Peter 1:3–9
John 20:19–31

PRAYER OF THE DAY: Almighty and eternal God, the strength of those who believe and the hope of those who doubt, may we, who have not seen, have faith in you and receive the fullness of Christ’s blessing, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

The internet has something for everyone-even people seeking to “undo” their baptisms. Really. You can’t make this stuff up. At unbaptism.org you can obtain a certificate renouncing your baptism and disassociating you from your church.  At first blush, it seems unlikely that there would be any sizable market for such a document, even though the service is free. After all, if you are convinced that baptism is an empty and superstitious rite, why would you even bother revoking it? If there is no God, the gospel is a myth and the resurrection a hoax, then there is nothing to revoke. Why not just toss your baptismal certificate into the recycling along with that “most valuable player award” you and everyone else on your first grade T-ball team received at the end of the season?

I am not convinced that the militant atheism we see popping up these days is so far removed from faith as might be supposed. At least the individual seeking a revocation certificate from unbaptism believes that his or her baptism has some meaning, some significance, some claim on his or her life that needs to be removed. In a strange way, their determination to dissociate themselves from Jesus testifies to his ongoing potency in their lives. I think that perhaps these folks are a good deal closer to genuine faith than the couples who come waltzing up to my office seeking to get their baby baptized, but have no interest in raising their child within the Body of Christ.

That brings us to our friend Thomas, whose name unfortunately acquired the prefix “doubting” that has stuck for the last two thousand years. As is the case with our baptism revoking friends, so too, I think Thomas’ refusal to accept the testimony of his fellow disciples and his insistence on hard evidence for Jesus’ resurrection reflects a sort of faith. After all, you can’t really have doubts about something unless you have at least some suspicion that it might be true. For all his protestations, we find Thomas still in the company of the rest of the disciples eight days later when Jesus appears again. You wouldn’t think anyone thoroughly convinced that the disciples were lying, crazy or deceived would stick around for even another hour. If Thomas did not believe that Jesus had been raised from the dead, it appears that he wanted to believe-or at least be firmly convinced that he could safely dismiss the disciples’ claim as baseless.

Perhaps, like Thomas, we live most of our lives in that no-man’s land between belief and unbelief called “doubt.” Why else do I sing “I know that my Redeemer Lives” even as I worry about my grandchildren’s future in the shadow of increasingly ominous news here at home and abroad? Why else do I continue preaching, teaching and witnessing although I continue to be concerned about membership decline throughout my church and loss of interest in faith generally throughout society? Why do I confess each day my belief in “the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting,” yet grieve so deeply the loved ones I have lost? Often it seems that I am unable to believe with the deep certainty for which I long, yet cannot shake the claim of faith sufficiently to free myself from it. At the end of the day, I continue to believe because Jesus has gotten ahold of my heart and won’t let go. While my faith is hardly unwavering, my doubts never sink to the level of unbelief. That is what keeps me in the church where I encounter the resurrected Lord.

Nobody understood the symbiotic relationship between faith and doubt better than Soren Kierkegaard. Recognition of “despair” or the “sickness unto death” is, according to Kierkegaard, the prerequisite for faith. This “sickness” consists in a sober recognition of human finitude, sinfulness and the impossibility of healing oneself. Faith grounds itself in the limitless possibility God opens up for us in the resurrection of Jesus from death. Discipleship consists in living between judgment and promise, finite human limits and the unlimited grace of God, frank acknowledgment of death’s inevitability and hope based on the conviction that Jesus lives. Here’s a poem honoring Soren Kierkegaard by Dana Gioia.

Homage to Soren Kierkegaard

Work out your own salvation
with fear and trembling.
St. Paul

I was already an old man when I was born. 
Small with a curved back, he dragged his leg when walking
the streets of Copenhagen. “Little Kierkegaard,”
they called him. Some meant it kindly. The more one suffers
the more one acquires a sense of the comic. 
His hair rose in waves six inches above his head.
Save me, O God, from ever becoming sure. 
What good is faith if it is not irrational?

Christianity requires a conviction of sin. 
As a boy tending sheep on the frozen heath,
his starving father cursed God for his cruelty.
His fortunes changed. He grew rich and married well.
His father knew these blessings were God’s punishment.
All would be stripped away. His beautiful wife died,
then five of his children. Crippled Soren survived.
The self-consuming sickness unto death is despair.

What the age needs is not a genius but a martyr.
Soren fell in love, proposed, then broke the engagement.
No one, he thought, could bear his presence daily.
My sorrow is my castle. His books were read
but ridiculed. Cartoons mocked his deformities
His private journals fill seven thousand pages.
You could read them all, he claimed, and still not know him.
He who explains this riddle explains my life.

When everyone is Christian, Christianity
does not exist. The crowd is untruth. Remember
we stand alone before God in fear and trembling.
At forty-two he collapsed on his daily walk.
Dying he seemed radiant. His skin had become
almost transparent. He refused communion
from the established church. His grave has no headstone.
Now with God’s help I shall at last become myself.

Source: 99 Poems (c. 2016 by Dana Gioia, pub. by Graywolf Press) Dana Gioia has little in the way of formal literary education when he began his career as a poet. Born in 1950, he graduated from Stanford Business School and went to work for General Foods and ultimately became vice president of marketing. He later completed a master’s degree in comparative literature at Harvard University. In 1992, he committed himself to writing full-time. He served as chairperson of the now endangered National Endowment for the Arts from 2003 to 2008.  Gioia was named Poet Laureate of California in 2015. You can find out more about Dana Gioia and sample more of his poetry at the Poetry Foundation Website.

Acts 2:14a, 22–32

Our reading for Sunday is taken from Peter’s Pentecost sermon. In Luke-Acts, Pentecost marks the transition from the “time of Jesus” to the “time of the church.” Juel, Donald, Luke Acts: The Promise of History, (c. 1983 by John Knox Press) p. 57. While this reading might seem misplaced from the standpoint of our liturgical calendar, it fits in very nicely with the gospel lesson from John. John’s Pentecost occurs on the evening of Easter Sunday when Jesus appeared to the disciples and “breathed on them, and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit.’” John 20:22.

In the lesson from Acts Peter, emboldened by the Holy Spirit, addresses a diverse group of Jewish pilgrims visiting Jerusalem for the feast of Pentecost. His text is Joel 2:28-32. Little is known about the prophet Joel. It is believed that he prophesied to the people of Judah during the Persian period of Jewish history between 539 B.C.E.-331 B.C.E. This group, you will recall, returned from exile in Babylon following the conquest of that empire by the Persians under Cyrus the Great. The exiles had high hopes of rebuilding Jerusalem, constructing a new temple and restoring the land. Contrary to their expectations, however, restoration was difficult, frustrating and slow. Many of the people became discouraged and abandoned the project altogether.

During his ministry the prophet Joel witnessed a devastating plague of locusts which he understood to be a judgment of God designed to call his people to repentance and faith. Such locust swarms, still experienced in the Middle East today, can consume an entire field of crops in a matter of hours. Their numbers are so great and their hoards so dense that they can eclipse the sun and moon much like a dark cloud. According to the prophet Joel, this plague was a portent and a sign of the “Day of the Lord” when the light of sun and moon would be dimmed in earnest.

The Apostle Peter quotes this text, but for him the “Day of the Lord” is not a future event. It has already taken place as shown by the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on the disciples enabling them to speak the gospel in languages of all nations. The apocalyptic sign of the end, the darkening of the heavens, occurred during the crucifixion of Jesus when “there was darkness over the whole land until the ninth hour, while the sun’s light failed…” Luke 23:44-45. Peter therefore declares to the crowd gathered before him that the Day of the Lord has arrived and the new age has come. I should add that many scholars, perhaps the majority, hold that Peter’s use of this text from Joel is to highlight the anticipated “second coming of Christ” rather than the crucifixion. E.g., Flanagan, Neal M., O.S.M., The Acts of the Apostles (c. 1964 by the Order of St. Benedict, pub. The Liturgical Press) p. 29.) I respectfully take the minority view.

It should be borne in mind that this audience probably knows Jesus or knows about him. What the people know is summarized by Peter in verses 22-23. Jesus was a worker of signs and wonders done in their midst. He was delivered up to “lawless men,” that is, the gentile rulers of Rome. He was crucified. That much is common knowledge. What the people do not know is that all of this took place “according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God” (vs. 23) and that “God raised [Jesus] up.” Vs. 24. What the people assume to have been the cruel death of a tragically misguided prophet, perhaps a prophet with messianic delusions, was in reality the working out of God’s mission of salvation for all people.

Peter continues his sermon by citing to a section of our Psalm for today, Psalm 16:8-11. In this psalm, traditionally attributed to David, the psalmist declares that God will not allow him to see the “Pit” or be abandoned to “Sheol.” Vs. 10. Peter argues that David cannot be speaking of himself because he has, in fact, died and the place of his burial is well known. Consequently, David must have been speaking about one of his descendants as God promised David that his line would endure forever. Thus far, Peter is interpreting the psalm in much the same way as it was widely understood in the 1st Century by many strands of Jewish tradition. The belief that God would raise up a descendant of David to restore Israel was a deeply held hope. But now Peter delivers the knockout punch: “This Jesus God raised up, and of that we are all witnesses.” Vs. 32. The crucified and rejected Jesus is the promised descendant of David raised up for Israel’s salvation.

Care must be taken in speaking of the “foreknowledge and plan” of God in the suffering and death of Jesus. If this language is forced into the theory of “substitutionary atonement,” we come out with a perverse understanding of God the Father whose treatment of his Son can only be described as child abuse. Jesus’ suffering and death was not “necessary” to appease the thirst of an angry God for vengeance. The crucifixion was not required to enable God to forgive. God does not need the death of Jesus to forgive sins. Jesus’ suffering and death was necessary or inevitable because living a life that is truly human and obedient to the will of God in a sinful and inhumane world can have but one consequence. That consequence of rejection, suffering and death God was prepared to embrace in the person of his Son in order to embrace us with human arms and love us with a human heart. The cross is the price of God’s covenant faithfulness to all of creation-a price God was willing to pay.

Psalm 16

Commentators are divided over the time of composition for this psalm. The majority place it in the post exilic period (shortly after 540 B.C.E.). Weiser, Artur, The Psalms: A Commentary, The Old Testament Library (c. 1962 by S.C.M. Press, Ltd.) p. 172. Although perhaps edited and recomposed for use in worship at the second temple rebuilt by the exiles returning from Babylon, this psalm contains elements reflecting a very early stage in Israel’s history possibly dating back to the time of the Judges. As Israel began to settle into the land of Canaan, she struggled to remain faithful to her God even as she was surrounded by cults of Canaanite origin. The urgent dependence upon rain that goes with agriculture in semi-arid regions made the Canaanite fertility religions tempting alternatives to faith in the God of Israel whose actions seemed so far in the past. The prophets were constantly calling Israel away from the worship of these Canaanite deities and urging her to trust her own God to provide for her agricultural needs. The existence of “other gods” is not specifically denied in this psalm and that also suggests an early period in Israel’s development. The psalmist makes clear, however, that these “other gods” have no power or inclination to act in the merciful and redemptive way that Israel’s God acts.

That said, an argument can be made for the claim that this psalm was composed among a group known as the “Hasidim” (godly ones) that was active shortly before the New Testament period. Ibid. Some of the pagan rites alluded to therein have affinities with sects and mystery cults known to exist during this time period. Ibid. Dating the final composition at this time is not necessarily inconsistent with our recognition of very ancient material within the body of the psalm utilized here to address a new and different context.

The psalmist opens his/her prayer with a plea for God to preserve him or her, but goes on to express unlimited confidence in God’s saving power and merciful intent. S/he has experienced the salvation and protection of God throughout life and is therefore confident that God’s comforting presence will not be lost even in death.

As we have seen, the Apostle Peter cites this text (assuming Davidic authorship) to demonstrate Jesus’ messiahship. By virtue of his resurrection, Jesus was spared from “Sheol” and the “Pit”. Vs. 10. It is important to note that this psalm does not speculate about any “after life.” Peter does not use the text in this manner either. His emphasis is not resurrection as such, but on Jesus’ resurrection as vindication of his faithful life and proof that God’s purpose has been worked out through that life. The notion of post death existence was not a part of Hebrew thought until much later in the development of Israel’s faith. Yet one cannot help but sense a confidence on the part of the psalmist that not even death can finally overcome the saving power of God. It is therefore possible to say that the hope of the resurrection is present if only in embryonic form.

1 Peter 1:3–9

The brief verses constituting our lesson are taken from the salutation given to the churches of northern Asia Minor (modern day Turkey) by the author of I Peter. These churches lived at the frontier of the Roman Empire where national security required greater internal government scrutiny. Societies such as the church that met regularly in private homes aroused suspicion. The refusal of Jesus’ disciples to take part in civil ceremonies acclaiming the deity of the Roman emperor seemed to confirm the government’s fear that the church might be a seditious movement dangerous to Roman society. As a result, members of the church experienced persecution ranging from social ostracism to outright violence.

This salutation sets the tone for the rest of the letter. Peter reminds these believers that they have been “born anew to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead…” vs. 3. This hope is an inheritance that cannot be taken away; thus, believers can rejoice even though their faithfulness to Jesus occasions suffering in the short run. Such rejoicing, as Stanley Hauerwas observes, is unintelligible apart from this community’s firm belief in Jesus’ resurrection. See last year’s Post for April 20th. That resurrection represents not merely the destiny of the church, but of all creation. Consequently, belief in the resurrection means shaping one’s life to fit the contours of the new creation soon to be born rather than to those of the old creation that is dying. Birth does not occur without pain and the shedding of blood. Martyrdom is the church’s ultimate testimony to the reality of God’s kingdom. The persecution of the saints constitutes the death throes of the old order just as surely as it does the birth pangs of the new.

John 20:19–31

It seems to me that John’s account of Jesus’ resurrection differs from those of Matthew, Mark and Luke in this respect: Whereas for the first three gospels Jesus’ ministry and crucifixion are interpreted through the shock of his resurrection; for John, Jesus’ laying down his life interprets his resurrection appearances. Or as one commentator puts it:

“…when we consider the nature of St. John’s gospel, in which the Lord during his ministry has revealed Himself as the resurrection and the life, and the cross, as interpreted by St. John, marks not only the last stage of His ‘descent’ but also His glorification, it should not surprise us that the evangelist is not concerned in ch. 20 to dwell upon the Lord’s resurrection as forming primarily a reversal of the passion. He expects his readers to have learned by this time the secret which he has gradually unfolded to them in the first nineteen chapters of his gospel, the secret, namely, that the Lord at the moment and in the fact of his laying down of His life has revealed the glory of the Father, and therefore His own oneness with the Father, to the fullest possible degree. If one moment of His revelation of the Father in the days of His flesh is to be distinguished from another, then at the moment of His death, more than at any other, He has glorified the Father, and His return to the Father has at least begun (cf. 6:62).” Lightfoot, R., St. John’s Gospel: A Commentary, (c. 1956 Clarendon Press, pub. Oxford University Press) pp. 329-330.

In narrating the resurrection appearances, John takes care to emphasize the physicality of the resurrected Christ. Jesus must tell Mary to cease clinging to him before he can go on his way. John 20:17. He appears to the disciples with the wounds of the cross on his body. Vss. John 20:20. He even invites Thomas to place his hands in those wounds. John 20:27. John makes clear that the incarnation is irrevocable. The flesh of Jesus was not merely a clever disguise. God became human and God remains human. “No one has ever seen God,” says John. But “the only Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, he has made him known.” John 1:18. God is known and knowable only through one’s abiding in the fully human Jesus. Nothing makes that point quite as emphatically as Thomas’ confession: “My Lord and My God.” Vs. 28.

“If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” Vs. 23. Exactly what does this mean? In my own tradition (Lutheran), this verse has always been associated with the “office of the keys,” the peculiar power of the church “to forgive the sins of penitent sinners, but to retain the sins of the impenitent as long as they do not repent.” Luther’s Small Catechism, Part V. But is that really what John had in mind here? In my view, the context makes that interpretation extremely doubtful. The focus is not upon the internal workings of the community of disciples but upon the disciples’ mission to the world. Undoubtedly, the two are related in this gospel. It is through the disciples’ love for one another that they will be identified as followers of Jesus. John 13:35. But the principal emphasis is on the disciples’ witness to the world, not to their relationship with one another. So what can it mean to “retain” sins?

I believe that John is emphasizing the importance of the commission that Jesus has just given to his disciples. It is through them that the life giving Word of forgiveness is to be made known to the world. It is “in” them that the Spirit now resides. If the disciples of Jesus do not make known God’s forgiveness of sin, the world will remain in the grip of sin. Those sins will be retained. But if the Word is spoken, it will be accompanied by the Spirit of God that inspires faith and breaks the bondage of sin. I believe that is what commentator Raymond Brown is saying in the following quote:

“In summary, we doubt that there is sufficient evidence to confirm the power of forgiving and holding of sin, granted in John 20:23 to a specific exercise of power in the Christian community, whether that be admission to Baptism or forgiveness in Penance. These are but partial manifestations of a much larger power, namely, the power to isolate, repel, and negate evil and sin, a power given to Jesus in his mission by the Father and given in turn by Jesus through the Spirit to those whom he commissions. It is an effective, not merely declaratory, power against sin, a power that touches new and old followers of Christ, a power that challenges those who refuse to believe. John does not tell us how or by whom this power was exercised in the community for whom he wrote, but the very fact that he mentions it shows that it was exercised.” The Gospel According to John, XIII-XX1, Raymond E. Brown, The Anchor Bible, Vol. 29a, (Doubleday, c. 1970) p. 1044.

Thomas comes in for a good deal of criticism for doubting Jesus’ resurrection, though to be fair, he was not asking for anything more in the way of proof than the disciples had already experienced. It is worth noting that however doubtful Thomas may have been, he remained in the company of his fellow disciples. That is to say, he remained in the church. That is the best possible advice I can give to people who have difficulty believing. Faith cannot be argued into anyone, nor can it be manufactured. It is a gift of the Holy Spirit that must be given. Still, we know where the Holy Spirit hangs out. The Spirit accompanies the preaching of the Word; the Spirit is poured out upon the bread and wine at the altar; the Spirit is present where two or three are gathered in Jesus’ name. If you want to believe, that is where you need to be. Of course, if you don’t want to believe, I can’t help you with that.

Sunday, April 16th

RESURRECTION OF OUR LORD

Acts 10:34–43
Psalm 118:1–2, 14–24
Colossians 3:1–4
John 20:1-18

PRAYER OF THE DAY: God of mercy, we no longer look for Jesus among the dead, for he is alive and has become the Lord of life. Increase in our minds and hearts the risen life we share with Christ, and help us to grow as your people toward the fullness of eternal life with you, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

Easter Sunday presents a unique opportunity for those of us who preach. We get a chance to speak with a lot of folks we don’t see in church on any other day. This is our one shot at bringing the resurrected Christ into the lives of people who have little to no interest in Jesus or his church. For years I have been struggling to get it right. I keep asking myself, how can I catch the attention of the unattentive? How can I interest the disinterested? What can I say in fifteen to twenty minutes that will convince an audience of lapsed, skeptical and perhaps even hostile listeners that Jesus’ resurrection matters to them? Every year I come away from Easter Sunday disappointed in myself. I just can’t seem to connect with the unconnected in a meaningful way.

Well, after years of effort resulting only in frustration, I have finally concluded that I have been preaching to the wrong audience. The good news of the resurrection will never make sense to the unconnected. It is addressed to the connected, to those who have been following Jesus throughout the season of Lent, dying daily to self through prayer, fasting and alms giving. There is no grasping the cosmic significance of the empty tomb without having seen Jesus laid there after his death on the cross. It is impossible to know the resurrection as a transformative event unless you understand that the one who was raised met the death of a criminal because he lived joyfully, faithfully and obediently as God’s beloved child a life of passionate love for a world we are prone to give up on. In short, the resurrection is a story for people struggling to follow Jesus in a world that is hostile to him and the reign of God he proclaimed. Easter is a good word directed to people who are living in the way of the cross. By trying to make it intelligible and appealing to disinterested observers, we water it down to sentimental mush.

The object of preaching, I believe, is to bring people into the presence of Jesus. But that simply cannot be done in a single sermon. Yes, I have known a few people over the years who have told me that a particular sermon turned their lives around. But I suspect that in these cases also there was a lot of additional preaching, teaching and witnessing going on in their past lives laying the groundwork for that moment of revelation. The truth dawns on us gradually most of the time. If Mary Magdalene, one of Jesus’ closest disciples, could not immediately recognize the resurrected Christ even as he stood in front of her and spoke to her, how can I expect a person not even casually acquainted with Jesus to spot him for the first time in one of my sermons?

The resurrection of Jesus is good news only in the context of the total gospel narrative. Ours is a story that stretches from the dawn of creation to its redemption and fulfillment. It cannot be told in one sitting and it cannot be understood apart from the community the story creates and sustains. That is why speaking the good news to the world at large is inseparable from the speaker’s engagement with the hearers in a way that beckons them to enter into our community of faith and get to know us as disciples of Jesus. We are the people who follow Jesus, the people whose way of life makes no sense apart from the remarkable claim that Jesus has been raised. Until the mind of Christ is formed in us, our witness to Christ will amount to no more than a metaphysical assertion. That is why a sermon is only as strong as the Spirit pulsing through the church in which it is preached. That is why our Easter preaching must be addressed first and foremost to God’s Easter people.

So I will be preaching this Sunday to Jesus’ disciples as I typically do on every other Sunday. I will preach the good news of Jesus’ resurrection from death to the ones who have been following him from Galilee, to Jerusalem, up the hill to Golgotha and into the tomb. I am glad, of course, for the presence of the unconnected in our midst. Perhaps they will get caught up in the joy of our celebration, the unusual vigor with which we sing on this great queen of seasons or the wonder and awe with which we take into our trembling hands the very body and blood of the resurrected Lord. Who can say whether this Sunday will be the day that peaks the interest of a bored teenager, moves a resentful spouse a tad closer to appreciation of his/her beloved’s faith or rekindles the longing of a lapsed member? My job is simply to tell the story to those who hunger for it as simply, as truthfully and as passionately as I know how-while trying to keep my worries about how it will be received from getting in the way.

Here’s a poem by Joyce Hernandez that speaks to the hope of every preacher for his/her Easter Sunday sermon.

When Jesus early rose and breathed
The pungent air of new-dug earth,
Passed the stone, and passed the flesh,
Passed the mourners of his death,
(and left them dazed, but following)
He rose with such a limpid flight
As wind or wings could only clutter,
And left no scratches on the world,
No broken twig or parted cloud,
To draw our eyes away from him.

(c. 1972 by Joyce Hernandez) Joyce Hernandez is a teacher, nurse and poet living in Yakima, Washington whose publications include The Bone Woman Poems (c. 2009, pub. by Allied Arts and Minuteman Press). She is also, coincidentally, my sister.

Acts 10:34–43

This passage is part and parcel of a larger narrative beginning with Peter’s vision in which the Lord speaks to him and commands him to slaughter and eat a host of animals deemed ritually unclean in the Hebrew Scriptures. See Acts 10:1-16. The meaning of this strange vision is not revealed to Peter until he finds himself in the midst of a gentile family, that of the Roman Centurion, Cornelius. There he witnesses the Spirit of God filling them all with faith and inspiring them to confess Jesus as Lord. The story as a whole reflects the inner struggle of a deeply Jewish church with the positive response of gentiles to the good news about Jesus. Most Jewish disciples, like Peter, harbored serious reservations about receiving gentiles into the church. How could these outsiders possibly have an informed and sincere faith in the Jewish messiah when they knew next to nothing about the Jewish scriptures and practices? What would be the consequences of an influx of these new comers? What conditions, if any, should be placed upon admission of a gentile believer? Must he be circumcised? Should he be required to learn the Hebrew Scriptures? Peter was on solid scriptural grounds with his scruples about eating ritually unclean food and sharing meal fellowship with non-Jews. Jewish believers under the Greek tyrant, Antiochus Epiphanes chose to endure torture and to die horrible deaths rather than eat food deemed unclean as demanded of them. I Maccabees 1:62-64. How could Peter go into the home of a Roman oppressor of Israel and eat unclean food at his unclean table? Would this not dishonor the memory of the brave martyrs under Antiochus?

Peter’s declaration “that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him…is acceptable to him” came only after much difficult soul searching. Vss. 34-35. Peter had to give up long held interpretations of the scriptures and religious practices that had been part of his life since infancy. That did not come easily. I suspect it was not until Peter witnessed the Holy Spirit breathing life giving faith into the Roman Cornelius and his family that he became fully convinced that these folks should be baptized. He simply decided that any interpretation of the scriptures that stands between Jesus and a believing heart cannot possibly be right no matter how clear, convincing and well established it may be. As I have said many times before, this story of Peter and Cornelius, along with my having met many gay and lesbian people of faith over the years, is what ultimately convinced me that the church must be fully inclusive and welcoming to these folks. When all is said and done; when all the scriptural arguments have been made; there remains the fact that the Holy Spirit has moved a person to faith in Jesus. I find myself asking, as did Peter, “Can anyone forbid water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?” Acts 10:47

While the context of this passage is important, the Easter emphasis is on Peter’s witness to Jesus. Note well how Peter makes clear that his witness goes not merely to Jesus’ resurrection, but also to Jesus’ anointing with the Holy Spirit, his works of healing and casting out demons and his execution-the natural outcome of his faithful life. Without this narrative, the resurrection is empty of any real meaning for us. Unlike us, the ancient world had no doubt that God (or the gods) could resurrect a dead person. The gods might bestow such a favor on anyone to whom they took a shine. But in the realm of Greco-Roman literature, such persons tended to be heroes. The notion that Israel’s God (or any other deity) would raise up a crucified criminal was absurd. Under all objective standards, Jesus had been a colossal failure. He was misunderstood, betrayed and deserted by his closest disciples. He was rejected by his people and put to death in the most shameful way possible. But God’s judgment on Jesus’ life is entirely different than our own. God raised Jesus from death to say, “Yes, this is what my heart desires of human beings. This is my very self and is also everything I ever wanted humans to be. This is the measure by which I judge; this is the depth of my love for all so judged.”

Psalm 118:1–2, 14–24

“O give thanks unto the Lord, for he is good.” Vs. 1 Saint Augustine remarks, “I see not what can be more solemn than this brevity, since goodness is so peculiarly the quality of God…” On the Psalms, Augustine of Hippo, The Nicene Fathers, First Series, Vol. VIII, (c. 1979 WM. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.) p. 557. “Goodness,” however, is not an abstract principle. Verse 14, “The Lord is my strength and my song, and he has become my salvation,” is nearly identical to Exodus 15:2 which, in turn, is taken from the Song of Moses celebrating Israel’s salvation from Egypt’s armies at the Red Sea. Exodus 15:1-18. God’s goodness is both defined and illustrated through the salvation narrative of the Pentateuch. The Exodus stands at the heart of Israel’s worship and history. It is the paradigm for God’s saving acts. As we have seen throughout Second Isaiah (Isaiah 40-55), God’s victory for Israel at the Red Sea and God’s guidance and protection as Israel made her way through the wilderness to the promised land provided a rich supply of images for prophets seeking to illuminate saving acts of God occurring in Israel’s present context and to encourage the people in their darkest hours. Thus, whether this psalm commemorates the victory of one of Judah’s kings in battle or a procession bearing the Ark of the Covenant into the temple and regardless of when it reached its final form, it echoes God’s glorious victory over Egypt at the Red Sea and Israel’s liberation from bondage.

The “glad songs of victory in the tents of the righteous” in verse 16 might refer to encampments on the battlefield and therefore indicate the celebration of a military victory. Alternatively, the tents might refer to pilgrim encampments about Jerusalem for the Feast of Tabernacles. Rogerson, J.W. and McKay, J.W. Psalms 101-150, The Cambridge Bible Commentary (c. 1977 Cambridge University Press) p. 86. Again, given Israel’s practice of adapting her ancient liturgical traditions to new circumstances, these two interpretations are not necessarily mutually exclusive.

Because the psalmist switches from singular to plural, addressing God at one point, the assembled worshipers at another while some passages seem to be addressed by God to the psalmist, many Old Testament scholars believe this hymn to be a compilation of several different works. Rogerson and McKay, supra, p. 85. Professor Bernhard Anderson sees this as a “royal psalm,” a liturgy in which the king of Judah approaches the temple gates and seeks admission that he may give thanks. In so doing, he serves as a priestly figure representing the whole congregation of Israel. Anderson, Bernhard, W., Out of the Depths: The Psalms Speak for Us Today (c. 1983 by Bernhard W. Anderson, pub. by The Westminster Press) p. 113.

The passage most commonly cited in the New Testament is at vss. 22-23. Jesus quotes these words at the conclusion of his parable of the tenants in the vineyard. Matthew 21:42Mark 12:10Luke 20:17. They are also cited at Acts 4:11 and I Peter 2:7. The “chief corner stone” is probably the chief stone supporting an arch, without which the structure collapses. Rogerson and McKay, supra, p. 88. The meaning of this ancient proverb is open to interpretation. It could well refer back to the confessional acknowledgement required of Israel that she was descended from “a wandering Aramean” and delivered from slavery in Egypt by the God who alone is responsible for her existence as his people. Deuteronomy 26:5-11. This seemingly insignificant people is in fact God’s people of blessing to all the earth. Naturally, the proverb provided assurance and hope during the period of Babylonian Exile when it seemed that Israel had been “rejected” by the builders of history. Not surprisingly, then, the Apostles recognized a parallel between the enslaved and exiled people of God exalted by God’s saving acts and the crucified messiah exalted through his resurrection.

Colossians 3:1–4

Though probably not actually written by Paul, the letter to the Colossians contains a good deal of Pauline thought and imagery. Therefore, I typically refer to the author as “Paul.” Whether Paul actually wrote the letter or whether it was written by a disciple or associate of Paul, it reflects enough of Paul’s spirit to be in some sense his own. As pointed out by Paul S. Berge, Emeritus Professor of New Testament, Luther Seminary, this letter is carefully composed and structured in a way that draws its hearers or readers into its center point through a literary pattern resembling a set of concentric circles. See Summary at enterthebible.org. The letter speaks of Christ’s sovereignty over all the powers and principalities of the universe and moves from there into a discussion of Christ’s sovereignty over the life of the church and believers.

Chapter 3 brings us to the center of the concentric circles of thought. Our reading for Sunday summarizes Paul’s argument in the prior two chapters. The Church is called upon to live as a colony of God’s kingdom, a piece of God’s resurrection future in the present world. In order to do that, it must keep its mind focused on “the things that are above.” This is not a spatial/directional instruction. Christ is “above” not in the sense that he is somewhere “beyond the blue,” but in the sense that he is supreme over both the principalities and powers of this world and also head of the church which is his Body. It is to Christ, not to Caesar or to any other earthly ruler that the church looks for redemption. It is the peace of Christ, not the Pax Romana in which disciples of Jesus are called to live obediently and faithfully as they await the revelation of that peace to the rest of the world.

This lesson makes clear to the church that Jesus’ resurrection makes a difference. A new world order has begun, whether the rest of the world recognizes it or not. The church need not build the kingdom of God. It is already here. The church only needs to witness to the new reality by living faithfully under its sway.

John 20:1-18

In order to appreciate fully the resurrection narratives in John, one needs to rewind the tape back to chapters 13-17 where Jesus discusses at great length the life of discipleship and the shape it will take following his resurrection. While it might appear at first blush that Jesus is preparing his disciples for his “going away” and for life without him, he is really doing nothing of the kind. His “going away” is actually his “going before” the disciples to prepare a place for them. John 14:1-3. The disciples should be glad for Jesus “going away” because it means that Jesus will be even more intensely and intimately present to them through the Spirit. John 16:5-11. All that God the Father has is revealed in Jesus and it is the Spirit’s job to take what belongs to Jesus and impart it to his disciples. John 16:13-15. And this is so that the Trinitarian love between the Father and the Son might abide among Jesus’ disciples so that the world will know that the Son has been sent by the Father for its sake. John 3:16; John 17:20-21; John 17:26.

There were no witnesses to the actual resurrection of Jesus. In all four gospels, the stone sealing the tomb where Jesus was buried had been moved away before the women arrived at the gravesite. The tomb was already empty. According to John’s gospel, Mary Magdalene is the first to arrive at Jesus’ grave on Easter morning. It is still dark. Vs. 1. John’s gospel uses “darkness” frequently to describe sin, ignorance, failure to comprehend or inability to see properly. “Darkness” is the antagonist to the Word which is described as “light” in John’s lyrical prologue. John 1:4-5. Nicodemus comes to Jesus “by night.” John 3:1-2. “Night” is a time “when no one can work.” John 9:4. It is “night” when Judas departs to betray Jesus to his enemies. John 13:30. So also it is still “dark” as Mary approaches the tomb and concludes, naturally enough, that the grave has been desecrated and Jesus’ body taken away. Vss. 1-2. This prompts Peter and the disciple “whom Jesus loved” to race toward the tomb to investigate. Vss. 3-4. There they find the grave wrappings lying in the tomb with the shroud that had covered Jesus’ head folded and lying separately. Vss. 4-8. Whereas both Peter and the “beloved” disciple go into the tomb and find it empty, it is the “beloved” disciple who believes, though he does not yet fully understand the “scripture that [Jesus] must rise from the dead.” Vss. 8-9. This is perhaps an intended contrast to Thomas who insists that he will not believe unless he sees. John 20:24-25. The beloved disciple is the “blessed” one who has “not seen and yet believe[s].” John 20:29.

Mary (who evidently returned with Peter and the beloved disciple to the tomb) remains at the tomb to weep. Vs. 11. As illustrated in the story of Lazarus, such lamentation at the gravesite was customary. John 11:31. Why Mary should look into the tomb a second time is not clear, but she does. At this point, she sees inside the tomb two angels who ask her why she is weeping. Vs. 12-13. Remarkably, Mary does not demonstrate the terror and awe that usually accompanies human encounters with angels. She simply tells them that someone has taken away the body of Jesus and she does not know where it is. Vs. 13. Are we to infer that Mary does not recognize the two white clad individuals as angels?

When Jesus appears and first addresses Mary with inquiries about the cause of her weeping, she does not recognize him. vs. 14. Supposing Jesus to be the garner and supposing further that he is responsible for taking away the body, Mary begs for him to disclose where that body is. Vs. 15. Once again, seeing is not believing. Though Mary sees Jesus, she does not recognize him until he calls her by name. Vss. 15-16. At the mention of her name, she finally does recognize Jesus and responds with the exclamation, “rabboni,” that is, “my rabbi” or perhaps, “my dear rabbi.” Vs. 16.

Much speculation has been wasted on Jesus injunction for Mary not to touch him-in contrast to his invitation to Thomas to do just that. Vs. 17. Cf. John 20:27. The Greek text employs the present imperative with a particular negative particle indicating that the “touching” was already in progress and that Mary was clinging to Jesus. As pointed out above, Jesus is indeed ascending to the Father. Vs. 17. From now on, his presence with his disciples will be qualitatively different, though every bit as real and even more intimate and intense. Thus, like the disciples in the farewell discourses, Mary is wrong to want to cling to the pre-resurrection relationship to Jesus. Something much better has just transpired in the new age that is dawning.

Mary Magdalene returns to the disciples and with her testimony breaks open to them and the world the advent of a new creation: “I have seen the Lord.” Vs. 18.  Those are the last words we hear from Mary in the New Testament. Perhaps that is appropriate. After all, once you have ushered in the messianic age with your own lips, anything else you might do after that is bound to be anti-climactic. I love this story told through the eyes of the first witness to the Lord’s resurrection and I intend to preach this text on Easter Sunday. For anyone focusing on the appointed text from Matthew, I invite you to revisit my post of Sunday, April 20, 2014.

Sunday, April 2nd

FIFTH SUNDAY IN LENT

Ezekiel 37:1–14
Psalm 130
Romans 8:6–11
John 11:1–45

PRAYER OF THE DAY: Almighty God, your Son came into the world to free us all from sin and death. Breathe upon us the power of your Spirit, that we may be raised to new life in Christ and serve you in righteousness all our days, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

“Can these bones live?” God asks the prophet Ezekiel. Wisely, the prophet defers to the Lord. “You know, O Lord.” Who else could possibly answer a question like that? God’s response is to command the prophet to prophesy, to preach to a valley full of dead bones. We all know (or should know) how the story ends. The bones do indeed rise up and live. Now, of course, this is a vision, not an actual event. The “bones” are not metaphors for all who have died. They represent the people of Israel who, though defeated, carried into exile and on the verge of religious and cultural extinction, are very much alive. The word of the Lord is able to give them life. They will yet rise up from the dead end of conquest and exile to live as God’s people once again. Synagogues all over the planet testify to the efficacy of that message and God’s faithfulness to the vision. Some commentators, but by no means all, maintain that this is all there is to the message, that we cannot derive from Ezekiel’s vision any hope for life beyond the grave as this topic was well beyond the scope of the prophet’s oracle. I explain below why, based on a fair reading of the text, I cannot accept such a limited interpretation. More fundamentally, however, I believe that a truncated “this worldly,” modernist reading of the text yields a gospel that for many is simply illusory.

If the new life Ezekiel prophesied for Israel consisted only in the eventual return to the Promised Land, then what about the many who died in exile before the Persian conquest of Babylonia made that return possible? What about the untold number of Hebrews that were born into slavery in the land of Egypt and who died in slavery before the advent of Moses and the Exodus? What about African Americans who came to this land in chains and never lived to see the March on Washington, the passage of the Civil Rights Act or the inauguration of Barak Obama? What of the millions alive today who will never escape oppression, starvation and crushing poverty? What about my grandson whose life expired a mere day after he was born? What to them is a glorious future in which they will never take part?

One of the characters in John Updike’s first novel, The Poorhouse Fair, raises this very question. Updike’s story takes place in a state run home for the destitute elderly overseen by prefect Stephen Conner. Conner is a product of the New Deal. He believes in the inevitability of human progress through social evolution and the perfection of governmental institutions. Conner becomes engaged in a conversation among the residents about the afterlife. He shares his vision of “heaven on earth” formed in a future society where illness is overcome by advanced medicine; pollution eliminated through harnessing atomic power; and oppression defeated through the spread of democracy. Mrs. Mortis, one of the residents, asks him whether this heaven on earth will come soon enough for her to see it. Conner responds: “Not personally perhaps. But for your children, your grandchildren.”

“But not for ourselves?”

“No.” The word hung huge in the living room, the “o” a hole that let in the cold of the void.

“Well, then,” Mrs. Mortis spryly said, “to hell with it.”

Updike, John, The Poor House Fair, (c. 1958 by John Updike, pub. by Random House). I share Mrs. Mortis’ sentiments. If the unsatisfied longings of billions for justice, peace, freedom and life never find fulfillment in God’s future, then for too many that future will have been a cruel hoax.

Many preachers of my generation have been greatly concerned that preoccupation with eternal life will somehow divert us from addressing evils and injustices in the here and now. If we get our pie in the sweet by and by, why concern ourselves with the trials of this passing world? So the argument goes. While I suppose that is a theoretical possibility, I doubt that it is as much a concern as we have made it out to be. The truth is, belief in the imminence of a new age in which the mighty are cast down, the poor exalted and the world judged by one who lived and died as one of the poor has inspired the formation of monastic movements that exercised radical hospitality, forsook arms and built hospitals and orphanages. Belief in eternal life and the saving power of the gospel inspired missionary movements of enormous energy throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The civil rights movement grew out of the African American church, which has always held an unfailing conviction in the hope of the resurrection. In short, the equation of belief in eternal life with quietism and inactivity is one of those assumptions that slipped into our preaching and teaching without much thought. It doesn’t hold up particularly well under critical scrutiny.

I suspect, too, that robust faith in the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting has become a casualty of mainline Protestantism’s efforts to make the faith palatable for modernism. Of course, modern science has taught us that we cannot take each line of the scriptures literally. For example, we need to accept evolution as scientific fact and re-examine understandings of the Bible that are inconsistent with what we know. Nevertheless, trying to harmonize the God of the Bible with a worldview that has no need for God has resulted in our proclamation of an unnecessary God. Paring God down to a size sufficient to fit within the cramped confines of a secular universe results in a deity so small and inoffensive and a reign so distant and uninteresting that Mrs. Mortis and just about everyone else turns away in disgust saying, “to hell with it.” What the world in this and every age needs to hear is the bold proclamation that the dead bones will live and that every life poured out for the sake of God’s future will be woven into that future. Nothing less will do.

Here’s a poem by Lawrence Ferlinghetti that expresses a longing for the “rebirth of wonder” that perhaps captures something of the longing of Mrs. Mortis and all whose lives consist of unsatisfied yearnings, loose ends and unfinished business.

I Am Waiting

I am waiting for my case to come up
and I am waiting
for a rebirth of wonder
and I am waiting for someone
to really discover America
and wail
and I am waiting
for the discovery
of a new symbolic western frontier
and I am waiting
for the American Eagle
to really spread its wings
and straighten up and fly right
and I am waiting
for the Age of Anxiety
to drop dead
and I am waiting
for the war to be fought
which will make the world safe
for anarchy
and I am waiting
for the final withering away
of all governments
and I am perpetually awaiting
a rebirth of wonder

I am waiting for the Second Coming
and I am waiting
for a religious revival
to sweep thru the state of Arizona
and I am waiting
for the Grapes of Wrath to be stored
and I am waiting
for them to prove
that God is really American
and I am waiting
to see God on television
piped onto church altars
if only they can find
the right channel
to tune in on
and I am waiting
for the Last Supper to be served again
with a strange new appetizer
and I am perpetually awaiting
a rebirth of wonder

I am waiting for my number to be called
and I am waiting
for the Salvation Army to take over
and I am waiting
for the meek to be blessed
and inherit the earth
without taxes
and I am waiting
for forests and animals
to reclaim the earth as theirs
and I am waiting
for a way to be devised
to destroy all nationalisms
without killing anybody
and I am waiting
for linnets and planets to fall like rain
and I am waiting for lovers and weepers
to lie down together again
in a new rebirth of wonder

I am waiting for the Great Divide to be crossed
and I am anxiously waiting
for the secret of eternal life to be discovered
by an obscure general practitioner
and I am waiting
for the storms of life
to be over
and I am waiting
to set sail for happiness
and I am waiting
for a reconstructed Mayflower
to reach America
with its picture story and tv rights
sold in advance to the natives
and I am waiting
for the lost music to sound again
in the Lost Continent
in a new rebirth of wonder

I am waiting for the day
that maketh all things clear
and I am awaiting retribution
for what America did
to Tom Sawyer
and I am waiting
for Alice in Wonderland
to retransmit to me
her total dream of innocence
and I am waiting
for Childe Roland to come
to the final darkest tower
and I am waiting
for Aphrodite
to grow live arms
at a final disarmament conference
in a new rebirth of wonder

I am waiting
to get some intimations
of immortality
by recollecting my early childhood
and I am waiting
for the green mornings to come again
youth’s dumb green fields come back again
and I am waiting
for some strains of unpremeditated art
to shake my typewriter
and I am waiting to write
the great indelible poem
and I am waiting
for the last long careless rapture
and I am perpetually waiting
for the fleeing lovers on the Grecian Urn
to catch each other up at last
and embrace
and I am awaiting
perpetually and forever
a renaissance of wonder

Source: A Coney Island of the Mind. (© 1958 by Lawrence Ferlinghetti, pub. by New Directions Publishing Corporation) Lawrence Ferlinghetti is a poet, playwright, publisher and activist. His work helped to inspire the “beat” movement of the 1950s. His poetry consistently challenges the status quo and engages his readers in challenging popular political movements and conventional social norms. Ferlinghetti felt strongly that art should be accessible to all people and not only to “elitists.” Accordingly, his writing frequently reflects and utilizes common American idiom.  You can read more about Lawrence Ferlinghetti and sample more of his poetry at the Poetry Foundation website.

Ezekiel 37:1–14

This engaging story has helped to inspire hymns, spirituals, folk songs and at least one rip roaring fun camp song I recall from my youth. It begins with the prophet Ezekiel being “brought by the Spirit of the Lord” to a valley (or plain according to some manuscripts) that is full of bones. Vss. 1-2. The bones are dry and, as we will see, disconnected. They are in such a state of scatter that it would have been impossible to recognize any individual form among them. Though described as a vision, the field of dismembered bones could well describe the conditions of any place around Jerusalem a decade after the Babylonian destruction of that city. The battle raged fiercely around the city for some time and the Babylonian troops showed little mercy for the hapless citizens of this troublesome and rebellious little kingdom when its last defenses failed. The scene calls to mind discovery of mass graves throughout the former Yugoslavia following the genocidal wars of the 1990s. Though the significance of the vision is not explained to the prophet until after it is complete, Ezekiel must have known that these were not the bones of strangers.

The Lord addresses the question to Ezekiel: “Can these bones live?” Vs. 3. From a purely human standpoint (the only standpoint Ezekiel can possibly have), the answer is “no.” Death is final. Ezekiel can have no basis for any other response. But the question is not posed by another mortal. This is not a conversation between peers. God is the questioner and Ezekiel knows that God possesses knowledge, power and wisdom far beyond the limits of his own understanding. Thus, while Ezekiel cannot conceive of how the dead bones might live again, he cannot rightly deny this possibility either. So he responds in the only possible way: “O Lord God, thou knowest.” Vs. 3

The prophet is instructed to prophesy to the bones, a seemingly futile task. Yet perhaps it seemed no more daunting to Ezekiel than his original call to preach “to a nation of rebels, who have rebelled against me; they and their fathers have transgressed against me to this day.” Ezekiel 2:3. Speaking to a people unwilling to listen (Ezekiel 3:7) is just about as fruitless as speaking to dead bones. But perhaps that is the point. As we shall see, these “dead bones” are the “whole house of Israel.” Vs. 11. It will be Ezekiel’s job to preach hope into the broken and demoralized Babylonian exiles eking out an existence in the midst of a hostile culture. Compared to this task, preaching to bones might have seemed a welcome diversion.

The Lord makes a remarkable promise to the bones: “I will cause breath to enter into you, and you shall live.” Vs. 5. There is a playfulness in this message that gets lost in translation. As I have noted before, the Hebrew word for “breath” (ruach) is also the word for “spirit.” This confluence of the speaker, the word and the life giving spirit cannot help but call to mind the opening of the creation story in Genesis 1:1-5 and the creation of Adam in Genesis 2:7. With this allusion, the Lord answers implicitly his own question. “Yes, the bones can live because I speak them into existence and breathe into them my life giving spirit.” It is significant, I think, that God places this life giving word into the mouth of his prophet to speak. Vss. 4-5. The prophet then literally preaches the bones back to life again.

In verses 11-14 the Lord explains the vision to Ezekiel. The “bones” are the exiled people of Judah living in Babylon. They are lamenting their fate saying, “Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are clean cut off.” Vs. 11. But the Lord says otherwise: “Behold, I will open your graves, and raise you from your graves, O my people; and I will bring you home into the land of Israel.” Vs. 12. Clearly, the “bones” are a metaphor for the exiles and the “grave” is a metaphor for Babylon, the land of captivity. But does Ezekiel mean to say more than this? In verse 13 the prophet goes on to say in the voice of the Lord: “And you shall know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves, and raise you from your graves, O my people.” This might only be a common case of Hebrew parallelism, repeating in a different word sequence substantially the same thought expressed in a previous sentence. Then again, the prophet might be intimating more. The final chapters of Ezekiel paint a portrait of restoration for Jerusalem, the temple and the land of Israel that clearly stretches the parameters of existence as we know it. See Ezekiel 40-48. The river flowing from the restored temple passes through the land of Israel, turns the oceans from salt water to fresh and brings to life the arid places. Ezekiel 47:1-12. Is it too much of a stretch to expect that people of Israel who have died prior to this glorious new age will be raised up to share in it also?

Of course there is no way of settling this question decisively. I am not convinced that there is enough here to state unequivocally that Ezekiel foresaw a resurrection of the dead. Clearly, the prophet’s focus was on the destiny of Israel in the Promised Land. As I noted above, the return of the Jews to that land constitutes a fulfillment his vision. Nonetheless, Ezekiel also believed that Israel’s return to Palestine would inaugurate a sweeping transformation of the land into an Eden like state where God is rightly worshiped. Where creation ceases to rebel against its Creator and allows God to be God, can there be any limitation on God’s power to breathe life into it? Obviously, this profound renewal of the land did not occur upon the Jews’ return from exile. We are therefore forced to conclude either that the prophet’s vision failed, or that it awaits fulfillment at a time and in a manner Ezekiel could not yet see. Naturally, I stand on the latter conclusion. So also does at least one prominent commentator. See Jenson, Robert W., Ezekiel, Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible (c. 2009 by Robert Jenson, pub. by Brazos Press) p. 284. Whatever limits there might have been on Ezekiel’s understanding of the word he proclaimed, it is after all the Lord’s word. I think Ezekiel would be the first to admit that one’s own necessarily limited understanding of that word cannot contain or limit the word.

Psalm 130

This psalm is one of seven “penitential psalms” (the others being Psalm 6Psalm 32Psalm 38Psalm 51Psalm 102; and Psalm 143) so named by Flavius Magnus Aurelius Cassiodorus Senator, a statesman, writer and scholar of the sixth century. It is characterized by Hebrew Scripture scholars as a “lament” containing all of the essential elements of its type:

  1. Initial Appeal to Yahweh, vss. 1-2.
  2. Portrayal of inward distress, vss. 3-4
  3. Expression of confidence, vss. 5-6
  4. Witness of praise to the community, vss. 7-8.

See Anderson, Bernard W., Out of the Depths, The Psalms Speak for us Today, (c. 1983 by Bernard W. Anderson, pub. by The Westminster Press) p. 97. The Hebrew word “mimmaamkym” “From out of the depths” is a term that is equated with “sheol” or the abode of the dead. For the Israelite there was no “after life.” The concept of resurrection from death came only much later in Israel’s thinking. Consequently, death was the end of any meaningful life. To be in sheol was to be separated from the realm of life and therefore from the Lord of Life. There is no praise of Israel’s God in sheol. Consequently, the psalmist must have been in very deep distress, though we cannot tell what his or her specific complaints were.

According to Anderson, supra, the “word ‘depths’ [mimmaamkym] reverberates with mythical overtones of the abyss of watery chaos, the realm of the powers of confusion, darkness and death that are arrayed against the sovereign power of God.” Ibid. Perhaps, but the point seems to be that the psalmist feels as utterly distant from God who is “enthroned upon the cherubim” (Psalm 99:1) as any creature can be. This distance is due, in part at least, to the psalmist’s sin. Though clearly in some sort of deep trouble, the psalmist knows that s/he is in no position to claim God’s help and salvation. Nevertheless, the psalmist is able to “hope in the Lord” and encourages all Israel to do the same because, “there is forgiveness with thee, that thou mayest be feared.” Vs. 4. It is worth repeating here that the New Testament did not invent forgiveness. God has always been and always will be forgiving toward his people Israel and toward his people engrafted into the covenant with Israel through baptism into Jesus Christ. If that were not the case, if God did in fact “mark iniquities” (vs. 3), there would be no point in prayers such as this.

The psalmist is resolved to “wait for the Lord.” Vs. 5. S/he knows that answers to prayer are not instantaneous. Prayer requires a willingness to wait and watch for the answer. Jesus also told his disciples “Ask, and you will receive; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you.” Matthew 7:7-8. Thus, asking is only the beginning. One must then seek the answer and be willing to knock on what appears to be a closed door.

“My soul waits for the Lord more than the watchmen for the morning.” Vs. 6. This is a striking image. In Jerusalem, watchmen took their post after sunset to keep a look out for approaching enemies. They were the ancient world’s equivalent of early warning systems. It was a tedious job on a long winter’s night and one can well imagine the watchman, who had no clock or wrist watch, scrutinizing the horizon for signs of the sunrise signaling that his lonely vigil was finally coming to an end.

In verses 7-8 the focus changes from the psalmist’s personal prayer to an admonition directed to all Israel to hope in the Lord. As we saw in Psalm 51, Israel frequently took ancient prayers of individuals and adapted them for use in public worship as prayers for the whole people. In this case, an Israelite who lived after the Babylonian destruction of Jerusalem may well have found in this individual’s plea for personal help a reflection of Israel’s post exilic distress. Having lost the line of David, the Temple, and her land, Israel was likewise “crying out from the depths.” Like the individual, Israel turned to the Word of the Lord and God’s promises for comfort and hope, knowing that with her God was forgiveness. Vs. 4.

Romans 8:6–11

I am not sure what can be done with this randomly selected section of Paul’s extended argument ripped out of its context and sandwiched in between some very substantial readings for this Sunday. It is worth pointing out, however, that when Paul is speaking of “the flesh” (“sarkos” in the Greek), he is not talking about bodily appetites (i.e., sexual attraction). He is instead speaking of life as lived under bondage to sin. Sin, as I noted in my post of March 5, 2017, is failure to trust God to be God and placing ourselves in the center of existence. Thus, where the self remains center stage, a life of severe asceticism is no less fleshly than a life of hedonistic abandon. In the case of the former, the objective is “self” purification; in the latter, “self” indulgence. Either way, it is all about “self” and that makes it sin.

So, too, life in the Spirit is not to be understood as an escape from bodily existence. Again, “flesh” is not synonymous with “body.” Rather, life in the Spirit is one of knowing the heart of God through one’s relationship with Jesus. When God is known as the one who does not withhold from us the life of his own Son, it is possible to trust God to be God and live joyfully, hopefully and obediently within our creaturely limits.

More could be said here, but not without resort to the context of Paul’s larger argument. That will have to await another day.

John 11:1–45

This incredible story begins in Galilee where Jesus has gone to escape hostility in Judea. There he receives word from Mary and Martha that their brother, Lazarus, is ill. “Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister Lazarus. So when he heard that he was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was.” Vss. 5-6. These two sentences strike the reader as a non sequitur. The New Revised Standard Version attempts to soften these sentences a bit by translating them as follows: “Accordingly, though Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus, after having heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was.” I don’t see any basis for this “softening” in the Greek text. Furthermore, I am convinced that the “harder” reading should stand because it alerts us to the very point to be made through the story, namely, that everything occurring in the gospel happens in order that Jesus might be glorified. So says R. H. Lightfoot and I agree. Lightfoot, R. H., St. John’s Gospel-A Commentary (c. 1956 by Clarendon Press, pub. Oxford University Press) p. 215-220.

From the standpoint of our twenty-first century, ego centric, narcissistic mentality that cannot see any good beyond individual self-fulfillment, it appears inexplicable that Jesus would refrain from taking a short trip to Bethany to save the life of one whom he loved. But Jesus points out that the illness is “not unto death,” but “for the glory of God, so that the Son of God may be glorified by means of it.” Vs. 4. If one accepts the proposition (as John would have us do) that the greatest good for all the world (Mary, Martha and Lazarus included) is the glorification of the Son, then love compels Jesus to remain where he is if that will further such glorification. Whether this decision on Jesus’ part was to allow nature to take its course with Lazarus or whether Jesus’ presence in Galilee was required for some other undisclosed reason is beside the point. Salvation for the whole world is revealed through the unfolding of the Son’s life lived in obedience to the will of his Father. Lazarus is part of all this drama as are Mary and Martha. But the story revolves around Jesus and their stories find meaning and fulfilment only as they are incorporated into his.

After an interval of two days, Jesus’ announces his intention to return to Judea and his disciples are incredulous. Had not Jesus only recently and narrowly escaped death at the hands of his enemies there? Why should he want to return? Jesus points out that he wishes to go to Lazarus who “has fallen asleep.” Vs. 11. The disciples, taking Jesus literally, interpret this to mean that Lazarus is on the way to recovery. In fact, he has died. Vs. 14.

Upon his approach to Bethany, Jesus first encounters Martha who greets Jesus with a seeming reproach: “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” Vs. 21. But she follows up with a confession of faith: “And even now I know that whatever you ask from God, God will give you.” Vs. 22. She further confesses, “I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, he who is coming into the world.” Vs. 27. Martha does not need the sign of Lazarus’ rising.

Mary is another story. She also reproaches Jesus for his absence in their time of need, but she makes no confession of faith. She and the people who are consoling her simply weep. It is at this point that Jesus “was deeply moved in spirit and troubled.” Vs. 33. The Greek word translated as “deeply moved in spirit” can mean either deep grief or anger. Commentators go wild attempting to get into the head of Jesus here. Was Jesus irked or grieved at the obvious failure of Mary and her supporters to grasp, as did Martha, that he is the resurrection and the life? Is this grief or anger directed against death and bereavement generally? Was Jesus simply sharing the sorrow of Mary at this point? On the whole, I believe that the first explanation fits best with the narrative. Jesus is grieved/angered that Mary and her friends do not recognize that he is the resurrection and the life. The sorrow inflicted upon them by this blindness is what induces his weeping, not simply the death of Lazarus. It is for their sake, the sake of these “people standing by” that Jesus performs the “sign” of Lazarus’ raising. Vs. 42. Many of those bystanders did, in fact, believe. Vs. 45.

But the story does not end with the reading. When we read further, we learn that some of the bystanders reported this sign to the religious authorities. Fearing that Jesus’ rising popularity and the expectations surrounding him might provoke aggression from Rome, the authorities determine to kill Jesus. John 11: 46-53. Thus, this life giving sign comes at a great cost to Jesus. Lazarus’ raising from the tomb places Jesus on his trajectory toward the tomb. Throughout John’s gospel Jesus continues to give life through increasingly profound and decisive signs even as he draws ever closer to death. Moreover, plans are made to do away with Lazarus as well. John 12:9-11. The sign, therefore, is not to be taken as a “happy ending.” It is anything but. It further emphasizes the observation made in Jesus’ dialogue with Nicodemus: “And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil.” John 3:19. Though Jesus’ sign cannot deter the gathering darkness nor even benefit Lazarus more than briefly, it nevertheless demonstrates that even death must retreat in the face of Jesus. Though surely not a “resurrection,” Lazarus’ raising points beyond itself to the final triumph over the power of death that Jesus will accomplish.

Sunday, February 26th

TRANSFIGURATION OF OUR LORD

Exodus 24:12–18
Psalm 2
2 Peter 1:16–21
Matthew 17:1–9

PRAYER OF THE DAY: O God, in the transfiguration of your Son you confirmed the mysteries of the faith by the witness of Moses and Elijah, and in the voice from the bright cloud declaring Jesus your beloved Son, you foreshadowed our adoption as your children. Make us heirs with Christ of your glory, and bring us to enjoy its fullness, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

“This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased. Listen to him.” Matthew 17:5.

Listening is a lost art. These days we download more information than we can possibly hope to absorb; we scroll down the Facebook wall absorbing tidbits from the personal lives of people we might not even know; and we get our news digested, dumbed down and spun to our liking. To be informed is to know what is “trending,” to have read the latest tweet, to have commented on the most recent post. “Old media” such as newspapers, hardcopy magazines and scholarly journals are dying. We haven’t the time to read lengthy, nuanced articles that leave us with more questions than answers. We haven’t the patience for a book that takes days to read and does not give us “closure.” Why make a trip to the library when all the information you need is obtainable from Google? Of course, ferreting truthful and accurate information out of that forest of conspiracy nuttiness, half truths and misinformation found on the internet regarding any given topic is just as inconvenient as struggling with an ungainly newspaper or trekking to the library. Discernment, like listening, is hard work. It requires time, patience and persistence. In our current culture, what cannot be reduced to an “elevator speech,” a tweet or a sound bite is not worth learning. Only that which is simple, free of nuance and easily expressed deserves a hearing.

Not surprisingly, then, we seem to have reached the point where truth no longer matters. We have lost the capacity to be shocked when the president of the United States rails about terrorist attacks in Sweden that never happened; massive voter fraud for which there is not a scrap of evidence and skyrocketing crime when the crime rate is actually lower than at any time since the early 1970s. “Fake news” can only exist in a culture so pitifully superficial and woefully ignorant that it seldom looks further than the latest blizzard of tweets, posts and shares.

I am not an enemy of the internet or social media. Neither do I believe that they are the source of all our social, political and moral woes. The social media revolution has made this blog of mine possible. It would be hypocritical in the extreme for me, of all people, to damn it. I am truly grateful for the opportunity the internet has given me to be heard by a larger audience. Nevertheless, I still miss the days when you couldn’t publish a book or an article that anyone would read without convincing a reputable publisher you had something to say and were capable of expressing it. I miss the days when our free public libraries were the authoritative source of public information and the gatekeepers were knowledgeable reference librarians who steered you to reliable and authoritative literature. I sometimes long for the days when you had to be somebody before you got to be on television or radio. Call me an elitist, but I miss the days when all opinions were not equal; when only men and women who knew what they were talking about got an audience and the ignorant were left to mutter their nonsense into their drinks at some hole-in-the-wall bar.

Yes, of course there was plenty of ignorance when I was growing up and a good deal more bigotry and overt racism. There were plenty of stupid television programs and radio shows as well. There was no shortage of demagogues and fear mongers in my younger years. God knows there have been too many trees sacrificed to print poorly written books. But generally speaking, we had a way of figuring out what was good and what wasn’t. Fringe elements remained on the fringe. Over time, the books worth reading percolated to the top while the junk found its way to the bargain table or the recycling bin. That was due in no small part to literary critics whose knowledge, understanding and insight were publicly recognized. We used to understand the difference between professional journalists on the one hand, who painstakingly collected facts, interviewed sources and carefully wove their material into thorough, balanced and thought provoking articles and demagogues on the other, who spouted groundless conspiracy theories and advanced baseless assertions. Nobody forty years ago with any semblance of literacy would ever have thought about putting trash like Breitbart on the same level with the New York Times or the Wall Street Journal.  But now that the internet has leveled the playing field, one has to fish through miles of cyber sewage to find genuine news, reliable information and truthful reporting. Truthful speech is simply one more voice struggling to be heard and frequently shouted down under the cacophony of “alternative facts.”

In the Transfiguration gospel, the Word of God reminds us that the truth still matters and identifies the voice to which we need to listen in order to hear it. We are commanded to listen to Jesus. That will require us to re-learn the art of listening and slow, careful reading. The Bible is not a post you skim and delete. It is one of those books, like Moby Dick, that you live with, read and read again. A good book is one you find it nearly impossible to explain. The most you can say about it is: “You have got to read this!” A book that can be summarized isn’t worth reading. How much more so the Bible! Don’t think you can find an abstract or a digest of Jesus. You cannot fit the Sermon on the Mount into a tweet or summarize it on a bumper sticker. If you are not confused and mystified by the Bible, you have not been listening to it!

There are many voices today clamoring for our attention. Some of those voices, like those of Moses and Elijah, even speak to us from out of the Bible. But none of these voices, not even the biblical ones, merit our immediate and primary attention. The first voice we are called to hear is that of Jesus. Learning to listen well to him will guide our reading of the Bible and sharpen our discernment enabling us to recognize and speak what is true, what is beautiful and what is good. Our language is only as powerful as our ability to listen and discern the truth. Here’s a poem by Kay Ryan about the fate of language in the absence of truth:

The Obsoletion of a Language

We knew it
would happen,
one of the laws.
And that it
would be this
sudden. Words
become a chewing
action of the jaws
and mouth, unheard
by the only other
citizen there was
on earth.

Source: Poetry Magazine (May 2011), c. by Kay Ryan. Kay Ryan was born in in 1945 in California.  She is the author of several books of poetry, including Flamingo Watching (2006), The Niagara River (2005), and Say Uncle (2000). Her book The Best of It: New and Selected Poems (2010) won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry. You can find out more about Kay Ryan and sample more of her fine poetry at the Poetry Foundation website.

Exodus 24:12–18

The Book of Exodus is the second of five books (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy) making up the “Pentateuch” or the “Five Books of Moses.” It has long been understood that Moses was not the author of these works, at least not in the modern sense of that term. Most scholars are convinced that there are at least four main literary sources, each of which narrates the drama of Israel’s origins. These works 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” or just “J,” 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 referred to simply as “E.” 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 or “D,” consisting of Deuteronomy and extending through the end of II Kings, is credited with joining the “J” and “E” 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.

That all sounds nice in theory. But our reading for Sunday illustrates the limitations of such literary analysis in many cases. Exodus 24 is filled with phrases and terminology that is foreign to all of the four known sources. This has led to a dispute over whether we are dealing with a possible fifth source or perhaps incorporation of such source material by J and E, the probable contributors for this section. Old Testament professor Brevard Childs wisely concludes that “the evidence is no longer such as to permit this detailed reconstruction” and that “the better part of wisdom consists in making clear those areas of general agreement.” Childs, Brevard S., The Book of Exodus, The Old Testament Library, (c. 1974 Brevard S. Childs, pub. The Westminster Press) p. 500. That being said, the one thing all scholars tend to agree upon is that verses 15-18 can be safely attributed to the “P” source.

By now you must be wondering why any of this crap matters. Usually, it doesn’t. Ordinarily, I would not waste time with such noetic perjinkerties, but I believe that here it makes sense to focus on verses 15-18 with the understanding that they come down to us ultimately from the Priestly (“P”) source. As Professor Gerhard Von Rad points out, “P depicts a course of history in which new manifestations, institutions, and regulations are revealed from age to age.” Von Rad, Gernard, Old Testament Theology, Volume I, (c. 1962 by Oliver and Boyd Ltd, pub. Harper &Row Publishers, Inc.) p. 233. At this particular juncture in the Exodus narrative, Moses is being summoned to the top of Mt. Sanai to receive the “tables of stone, with the law and the commandments.” Vs. 12. He instructs Aaron and Hur to remain below with the people. Vs. 14. At the beginning of vs. 15 we are given the Priestly authors’ account of Moses’ direct encounter with God upon Sinai. God appears as a devouring fire in the midst of a dense cloud. While at this point Moses alone can approach God, Moses is to receive detailed instructions for construction of the Ark of the Covenant and the Tabernacle in which it will be housed. Aaron and his sons are to be consecrated as priests to serve in the Tabernacle which will henceforth mediate God’s presence in the midst of Israel. All of this is spelled out in Exodus 25-31.

The Priestly history reveals that “new manifestations and institutions” governing worship and faithful living are not directionless. They have a goal, namely, the nearer presence of God. There is, one could say, an incarnational tropism expressed in the relentless approach of God toward his people. The end point is that day when “I will be their God, and they shall be my people. And no longer shall each man teach his neighbor and each his brother saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ for they shall all know me from the least of them to the greatest…” Jeremiah 31:33-34. Or, in terms of the New Testament, “Behold, the dwelling of God is with men. He will dwell with them and they shall be his people and God himself will be with them.” Revelation 21:3. This dogged progression of God toward oneness with his people manifested throughout the growth and development of Israelite religious institutions could not have been lost on Matthew whose purpose is to present Jesus as the end point of the law and the prophets. That will become increasingly evident in Matthew’s account of our Lord’s Transfiguration.

Psalm 2

This psalm is familiar to all lovers of Handel’s Messiah. Formally, it is an “enthronement psalm” portraying the coronation of an Israelite/Judean King. As such, it reflects a ritual common throughout the ancient world, particularly in Egypt, where the king was designated “God’s son.” The coronation took place in the sanctuary where the newly crowned king received an oracle from the priest legitimating his rule. Anderson, Bernhard W., Out of the Depths-The Psalms Speak for Us Today, (c. 1983 by Bernhard W. Anderson, pub. The Westminster Press) p. 188. This ritual and its accompanying liturgy brings into sharp focus the danger of monarchy and the reason for Israel’s ambivalence toward the institution of kingship. As the prophet Samuel pointed out when the people of Israel first began agitating for a king to rule over them, kingship would bring with it taxation, loss of tribal autonomy and oppressive military conscription. I Samuel 8:10-18. But the more significant threat was theological. It is the Lord “who is enthroned on Israel’s praises.” Anointing a king over Israel amounted to dethroning the Lord as king. I Samuel 8:7. Linkage between the liturgy of the Temple and the coronation of the king is symptomatic of a dangerous synergy. Before long, the worship of God would be swallowed up in adoration of the king. Very soon the institutions of worship and the observances of the covenant would become the religion of the nation state. Faith in Israel’s God would be reduced to sacred ideology legitimating injustice and oppression under the monarchy. This is precisely the evil which the 8th Century prophets rose to denounce.

Nevertheless, this and several other psalms containing coronation liturgies and prayers for the king have made their way into the Psalter. It is important to keep in mind that, however corrupt the institution of monarchy might actually have become in Israel and Judah, the role of the king was to serve as God’s minister for justice. The king is not above the law as the story of David and Bathsheba demonstrates. II Samuel 11:1-12:25. Kings of Israel were anointed to “judge thy people with righteousness, and thy poor with justice,” “to defend the cause of the poor of the people, give deliverance to the needy, and crush the oppressor.” Psalm 72:2-4. The hope that such a king would someday arise remained alive even among prophets most critical of the monarchy, such as Jeremiah (See Jeremiah 23:1-6). It finally evolved into the fevered messianic expectation present throughout Palestine in Jesus’ day. This longing for a messianic liberator was naturally fed by resentment toward Roman domination. Thus, claiming the title “messiah” or “son of God” was a dangerous political assertion. It amounted to a frontal attack on the Roman Empire which maintained that “Caesar is Lord.”

Verse seven of the psalm is echoed first at Jesus’ baptism. Matthew 3:17. The devil takes up the refrain throughout his temptation of Jesus in the wilderness. Matthew 4:1-11. We hear these words once again in Sunday’s lesson on the Mountain of Transfiguration. Matthew 17:5. The allusion to this psalm is intended to inform us that Jesus is the messiah and, among other things, the rightful heir to the throne of David. But as we shall see in our reflections on the gospel lesson, there is far more to be said of Jesus than was ever intended for any Israelite king by the psalm.

2 Peter 1:16–21

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

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

Sunday’s reading appears to reference the Transfiguration story recounted in the gospels. However, it is possible that the author is referring to a resurrection appearance of Jesus similar to that described in the Gospel of Matthew. Matthew 28:16-20. In Matthew’s gospel, Jesus appears only briefly to the women at the tomb following his resurrection. He instructs them to tell the rest of the disciples to meet him at a particular mountain in Galilee. Matthew 28:8-10. Mark has a similar sequence, but in his gospel the women do not see Jesus, but only an angelic messenger at the tomb. Rather than delivering to the rest of the disciples the instructions to return to Galilee, the women run away from the tomb in terror and say nothing to anyone. Mark 16:5-8. In Matthew’s account, the women deliver the message from the risen Christ and the disciples travel to Galilee where they encounter him. Matthew 28:16. So the question is, which “holy mountain” is the author talking about? The Mountain of Transfiguration? Or the mountain in Galilee where the disciples encountered the resurrected Christ?

In either case, the point is that faith rests upon the handing down of eye witness accounts of Jesus’ life giving ministry, obedient suffering, faithful death and glorious resurrection. These are not “cleverly devised myths,” but faithful testimony grounded in the witness of the apostles. Vs. 16. Jesus is the “prophetic word made more sure.” He is the “lamp shining in a dark place” by which we read the scriptures. No scripture is a matter of one’s own personal interpretation. For disciples of Jesus, the scripture has one purpose: to illuminate their Master. It is a dreadful mistake, therefore, to read the scriptures as though they were a list of moral rules, a collection of wise sayings or interesting narratives apart from their testimony to Jesus who, for us, gives them their meaning.

Matthew 17:1–9

“And after six days Jesus took with him Peter and James and John his brother, and led them up a high mountain apart.” Vs. 1. The six days almost certainly harken back to the Exodus narrative in which the glory of the Lord in the midst of a cloud descended upon Mt. Sinai for that period of time. Exodus 24:16. Just as it was on the seventh day that Moses was called to enter into the cloud where the glory of the Lord resided, so Jesus takes his disciples “after six days” to the Mountain of Transfiguration where they enter with him into the cloud. The glory of the Lord which they behold, however, is Jesus himself whose face shines like the sun and whose garments become white as light. Vs. 2. Professor Stanley Hauerwas sees in these “six days” an allusion to the six days of creation after which God rested. Genesis 2:1-3. Hauerwas, Stanley, Matthew, Brazos Theological Commentary of the Bible (c. 2006 by Stanley Hauerwas, pub. by Brazos Press) p. 154. This could well be so. As I have noted before, it is not Matthew’s intent to fit Jesus into a single, ridged scriptural paradigm, but rather to illuminate the person and work of Jesus through myriad Hebrew Scriptural figures and traditions. Fellowship with Jesus is indeed the ultimate Sabbath rest and may well be what Jesus meant in Matthew 11:27-30 where he promises rest to all “who labor and are heavy laden.”

Jesus appears in the company of Moses and Elijah. The former is the mouthpiece through whom God delivered the covenant to Israel from Mt. Sinai. The latter is the mouth through which God persistently called Israel back to faithfulness under that covenant. Though ever in tension with one another, the law and the prophets are inseparable. The law (understood as “Torah”) is the concrete shape of Israel’s life of faithful obedience to her God. The prophets speak that same Torah freshly to each generation. In that sense, the prophets are “radicals,” ever calling Israel back to the roots of her faith. Matthew means to make it clear, however, that Jesus transcends both Moses and Elijah. Jesus both extends and fulfills their missions in himself. The voice from heaven declares, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him.” Vs. 5. When the cloud recedes and the disciples raise their terrified faces once again, they find themselves in the presence of “Jesus only.” Vs. 8.

Once again, we hear the echo of Psalm 2 in the words, “This is my beloved Son.” Vs. 5. Though Matthew is obviously intimating that Jesus is, among other things, the messiah and heir to the throne of David, he is saying far more about Jesus than could ever be said of any Israelite king. For Matthew, the Torah of the Hebrew Scriptures and their great figures can shed light on the person and work of Jesus, but none of them can contain him. Here on the Mountain of Transfiguration, the new wine of the kingdom bursts all of the old skins. Our attention is turned to ‘Jesus only.”

This text amplifies what the gospels all teach us repeatedly. Just when you think you know Jesus, you find out that you don’t. There is always more to Jesus than meets the eye and discipleship is as much about unlearning what we think we know about Jesus as it is learning new things about him. Sometimes I think that the church’s biggest problem is that we have ceased to be amazed by Jesus. The Christ we proclaim is too often the predictably nice, inoffensive, upper middle class, slightly left of center, socially responsible but ever white and ever polite protestant gentleman. Without the beard, bathrobe and sandals he would look just like us. As a friend remarked to me years ago, “Fritz Mondale in a Jesus suit.” Nothing against Fritz, but he and the rest of us just aren’t sufficiently interesting to get most people out of bed on a Sunday morning. That is why we need Jesus!

Sunday, December 18th

FOURTH SUNDAY OF ADVENT

Isaiah 7:10–16
Psalm 80:1–7, 17–19
Romans 1:1–7
Matthew 1:18–25

PRAYER OF THE DAY: Stir up your power, Lord Christ, and come. With your abundant grace and might, free us from the sin that hinders our faith, that eagerly we may receive your promises, for you live and reign with the Father and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

“Night comes when no one can work.” Jesus of Nazareth, John 9:4.

In the winter of 2012 my mother took a fall and shattered her pelvis. This was not the first fall she had taken nor was it the first serious medical incident she had encountered. Mom had suffered a series of injuries and illnesses over the last decade, each taking its toll. This last injury came at a time that she was already battling a number of serious life threatening infections. The doctors informed her that surgery to repair her broken bones was an option, but one that involved numerous risks and potentially permanent side effects. By this time Mom was in her late 80s. She made it clear to all of us that, for her, the struggle was over. She understood that modern medicine had done all it could to make her life better. Now it had nothing more to offer her. So it was that Mom entered hospice where she spent her last days singing hymns, reminiscing with her children and, when she no longer had the strength for that, simply resting in their presence. She was content to let evening come.

There was nothing despairing or fatalistic in Mom’s decision. She told my sister, “If you need to cry for yourself and your family, go ahead and do it. It’s good for you. But don’t you dare cry for me. I’ve lived a blessed life. Now it’s ending just like I always knew it would. Nothing sad about that.” Mom once told me of a dream she had about coming to a door with her name on it. Somehow, she knew it was the door into heaven. She was about to open it when she heard the voice of Jesus say, “Not yet, Clara. But soon.” She took immense comfort in that dream. It gave her a profound sense of hopefulness throughout the rest of her life. Perhaps that’s why Advent was Mom’s favorite season. It is, after all, a season of hope, expectation and longing. Her favorite hymn was The Bridegroom Soon Will Call Us. Verse 1 declares:

The Bridegroom soon will call us;
Come all ye wedding guests!
May not His voice appall us
While slumber binds our breasts!
May all our lamps be burning
And oil be found in store
That we, with Him returning,
May open find the door!

The Lutheran Hymnal, # 67 (c. 1941 Concordia Publishing House)

Mom’s confidence in Jesus’s promise to walk with her through the valley of shadow enabled her to take her first step into the blackness of death with hope and even a measure of joy and anticipation. What, from a purely human standpoint, looked like the ultimate dead end, she recognized as the long awaited door with her name on it.

I think that perhaps it was this same confident faith the prophet Isaiah was attempting to inspire in the frightened young King Ahaz. At the tender age of 20, Ahaz inherited a Kingdom that had experienced half a century of peace and prosperity under his father, Jotham and his grandfather, Uzziah. For his predecessors, the empire of Assyria was but a distant and abstract menace. Judah’s northern neighbors, Israel and Syria, served as a buffer between Judah and Assyrian aggression. But just as this young, inexperienced and uncertain lad took the throne, everything changed. Israel and Syria would no longer put up with their neighbor’s benefiting from their military protection, but refusing to contribute. So Israel and Syria sent the king an ultimatum: Join with them in a military attack on Assyria or face war with them.

The Bible tells us that when the king and his advisors received this ultimatum, “his heart and the heart of his people shook as the trees of the forest shake before the wind.” Isaiah 7:2. This fear is understandable. The world was changing in ways the king and his advisors failed to comprehend. The old alliances, the old conventions and the old ways of diplomacy were not working for them anymore. None of the wisdom handed down from generations of kings before seemed to apply. While the king and his advisors were clueless, the changed circumstances were all too clear for Isaiah the prophet. Isaiah could see that the future belonged to superpowers like Assyria, Egypt and Babylonia. In a world dominated by these imperial giants, there was no room for small, petty kingdoms like Judah, Israel and Syria. The kingdom of David, as it had existed for seven centuries, had no future. There was nothing the king could do, no decision he could make, no strategy he could employ to change that.

But that did not mean the people of God had no future. Isaiah was not a prophet of cynical resignation. Like Mom, he understood that when there appears to be no way forward, God makes a way. The last two readings we have had from the prophet Isaiah during this Advent season give us a graphic vision of the future God intends, not only for Israel, but for the whole earth. But this future will be brought to fruition by “the zeal of the Lord,” not by our own efforts and designs. Isaiah 9:7. Indeed, our efforts to “help” God make history come out right often only make matters worse for ourselves.

The response of King Ahaz to Isaiah illustrates the point. The king was wise enough to recognize that the Israel/Syria alliance stood no realistic chance of defeating the Assyrian empire. Joining Judah to such an alliance would only seal the kingdom’s destruction. The better course, Ahaz was advised, would be to act pre-emptively. Send overtures to Assyria; become Assyria’s faithful subject. Save the emperor the bother of having to conquer Judah and he might well allow it to continue with a measure of autonomy. There would be a stiff price to pay in terms of tribute, loss of sovereignty and religious compromise. But these sacrifices are surely worth making if they keep the line of David intact a little longer, let the temple remain standing for the time being and allow the people of Judah to continue living in the promised land for the foreseeable future.

Of course, Isaiah didn’t see it that way. He urged the king to resist the temptation of giving in to the shortsighted, survival oriented advice of his counselors. This isn’t just a pragmatic choice between the lesser of evils. There is a good and faithful choice to be made here. There is another way. “Be quiet. Do not fear.” I can hear already the response of the king and his advisers: “Is that it? That’s your strategy? Sit and do nothing?” I can well understand that response. Being a child of the 60s, I grew up with the established creed that nothing is worse than doing nothing. “Don’t just stand there, do something!” We used to say. Yet Isaiah’s advice to Ahaz appears to be, “Don’t just do something. Stand there!”

As hard as it is for people like me to accept, there are times when waiting and doing nothing is the faithful response. When the world is changing, when the old rules do not seem to apply anymore, the old ways of doing things don’t seem to be working and when one’s very survival is at stake, it is easy loose one’s moral compass and grasp at anything or anyone promising a way out. Again, Ahaz is a case in point. He was fixated on saving the kingdom, but God’s priority is always on the covenant made with Israel before it had any land, king or temple. What matters to God is that God’s people live faithfully within that covenant and thereby testify to the future God is working to bring about for all of creation. For that good and faithful work, there is no need for land, king or temple- as synagogues throughout the world testify. But because Israel would not be still; because Israel fought tooth and nail against the future; because Israel could not imagine any covenant existence without the marks of her nationhood, God stripped all of these marks away and subjected Israel to a lengthy exile. Out of these dark and bitter times, a new Israel emerged-a community of faith that produced the Hebrew Scriptures, rebuilt the city of Jerusalem and re-interpreted the Torah for a new generation.

There comes a time for every person, nation and church to recognize the end of an era. It takes courage, spiritual maturity and discernment to know when medical treatment holds no more promise for healing; when the fight for national survival no longer serves a people; when pouring more money, more energy and more time into a congregation or denominational program no longer produces life-giving mission and ministry. There is a time for admitting that we do not know the way forward; that we do not know what time it is in the grand scheme of things; that we cannot prevent the onset of night. Such awareness will not paralyze us with hopelessness and fear so long as we understand that our faithful God is at work under the cover of darkness setting the stage for us to shine as witnesses to the bright future in store for the world God sent his Son to save.

Here’s a poem by Jane Kenyon expressing the kind of faith known by Mom and Isaiah the prophet.

Let Evening Come

Let the light of late afternoon
shine through chinks in the barn, moving
up the bales as the sun moves down.

Let the cricket take up chafing
as a woman takes up her needles
and her yarn. Let evening come.

Let dew collect on the hoe abandoned
in long grass. Let the stars appear
and the moon disclose her silver horn.

Let the fox go back to its sandy den.
Let the wind die down. Let the shed
go black inside. Let evening come.

To the bottle in the ditch, to the scoop
in the oats, to air in the lung
let evening come.

Let it come, as it will, and don’t
be afraid. God does not leave us
comfortless, so let evening come.

Source: Let Evening Come, Kenyon, Jane (Graywolf Press, 1990). 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 7:10–16

Imagine that you are a twenty year old prince growing up in a nation that has not seen war in a generation. Of course, you have heard rumors about the growth of the Assyrian Empire and its expansionist policies. But Assyria lies far to the north. Several nations stand between your country and the empire. Assyria is not seen as an immediate threat. Suddenly, your father dies and you find yourself king. No sooner do you ascend the throne than you are confronted with a military crisis. Several of your neighboring kings hand you an ultimatum: join with them in a military coalition against Assyria or face war with all of them. You have three choices, none of them good. You can join the coalition, which seems doomed to defeat, and then face the destructive wrath of Assyria. You can resist the coalition and stand your ground against the bellicose threats of your neighbors-a doubtful proposition for a nation whose army is practiced in little more than marching in parades. Or you can act preemptively. You can reach out to Assyria and offer to become its vassal state. That way, you gain Assyrian protection from your enemies and preserve your throne. Such protection comes at a cost, however. Assyria will demand a punishing tribute that must be financed through taxation of your people. You will also be required to erect a shrine to Assyria’s god Asshur in the Temple of Jerusalem. That will offend the priests and rile up the prophets. But they must be made to understand that these measures are diplomatic necessities, matters of national security over which the crown exercises sole authority.

Enter, the prophet Isaiah. There is a fourth way, he says, that you have not considered. Do you not recall how God intervened to give Sarah and Abraham a son when their line seemed doomed to extinction? Do you not understand that you live and breathe only because God faithfully kept his promise to this patriarchal couple? Do you not remember how God intervened to rescue your ancestors from slavery in Egypt and bring them into the land where you now live? How then is it that you have come to believe in a world driven solely by geopolitical forces? How is it that you have made your decisions in such a way as to leave no room for the saving intervention of the God you have to thank for the land you live in?

That is precisely the situation in which we find King Ahaz in our lesson from Isaiah. He has chosen to seek refuge from Assyria and accept all of the attending consequences. This, he maintains, is the least offensive of three bad choices. Isaiah urges the prophet to reconsider. There is another choice the king can make; a faithful choice; a life giving choice. “Take heed, be quiet, and do not fear.” Vs. 4. The prophet begs the king to ask for a sign of God’s faithfulness (Vs. 11), but the king replies: “I will not ask, and I will not put the Lord to the test.” Vs. 12. This seemingly pious response is in fact a curt dismissal. The king is a Niebuhrian realist. Faith has no place in geopolitics. The Sermon on the Mount is all well and good when it comes to governing behavior at church picnics. But it has no place in determining how one should deal with the likes of ISIS or Kim Jong Un. Real world threats call for real world solutions.

Of course, that begs the question. What is more real for you: the specters that threaten your security or the covenant promises of your God? For Isaiah, God was the overwhelming reality. His graphic encounter with this God in the Temple of Jerusalem governed Isaiah’s outlook on all else. (Isaiah 6:1-5) There Isaiah recognized that neither Israel’s king nor the king of Assyria reign over history. The Lord of Hosts is King and he alone deserves ultimate allegiance. This God is the only one worthy of trust. So what would have happened had the king listened to Isaiah, refused both the anti-Assyrian alliance and his counselors’ urging to seek Assyrian aid? We can never know where the road not taken might have led. But we can confidently say that if Ahaz had put his trust in God’s covenant promises, his decision would have made room for yet another saving act of God. What shape that act might have taken we will never know.

As I have said in previous posts, it would be a mistake to characterize Isaiah as an idealistic dreamer whose visions were divorced from reality. Isaiah understood the geopolitical landscape better than Ahaz and his advisers. He could see that the dawning age of empires held no place for small, autonomous kingdoms like Judah and Israel. But that did not mean there was no place in that future for the people of God. Far from it! In the coming age of violent imperial warfare on a scale the world had not yet seen, a light for the nations would be needed more than ever. More than ever before, a faithful covenant people would be necessary to show the world that life does not have to be the way we have made it. There is an alternative way to be human, a social reality different from the hierarchical model of master and slave. The challenge for Israel: how to be this people of blessing in the age of empire.

Though he refused a sign under the pretext of humble piety, Ahaz receives a sign anyway. “The young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Emmanuel.” Vs. 14. Though as we shall see, Matthew recognizes in the birth of Jesus the fulfillment of this prophecy, the immediate meaning for Ahaz is quite different. Biblical scholars continue to dispute the identity of this promised child. It has been argued that Emmanuel must be 1) a child of Ahaz; 2) a child of Isaiah; 3) a general reference to all Judean children born in this time of crisis. For numerous reasons, the discussion of which would be far too tedious, none of these interpretations really fits. Nor is it clear what is meant by Isaiah’s declaration that the child shall be eating curds and honey by the time he knows how to distinguish between right and wrong. It is clear, though, that by this time the nations now pressuring Ahaz to join their anti-Assyrian coalition and threatening Judah with invasion will no longer exist. The implication is that Ahaz need only have waited and trusted in the Lord. God would have seen to the destruction of his enemies. There was no need to seek Assyrian aid. But now that Ahaz has ventured down this faithless path, he and his nation will bear the consequences-Assyrian oppression and tyranny. According to verse 17 (not in today’s reading) “The Lord will bring on you and on your people and on your ancestral house such days as have not come since the day that Ephraim departed from Judah—the king of Assyria.” Though couched in terms of realism and practical necessity, Ahaz’ decision to seek Assyrian protection was in fact short-sighted and foolhardy. So far from preserving the liberty of his nation, he exchanged one tyrant for another that would in time prove far worse.

Psalm 80:1–7, 17–19

Prior to the formation of the Davidic monarchy the tribes of Israel were bound together in a lose confederacy. It was customary for the people to assemble at a central sanctuary located at Shechem (See Joshua 24) and later at Shiloh. See I Samuel 1. Three such assemblies were required by covenant law: Festival of unleavened bread (later associated with Passover); Festival of first fruits (also called “weeks” or “Pentecost”) and the festival of ingathering (also called Tabernacles). See Exodus 23:14-17. Of the three, the most significant was the Feast of Tabernacles which evolved into a covenant renewal ceremony in which Israel recited God’s faithful acts of salvation and pledged her allegiance to this trustworthy God. Anderson, Bernhard W., Out of the Depths-The Psalms Speak for us Today, (c. 1983 Bernhard W. Anderson, pub. The Westminster Press) pp. 168-69. This tradition persisted after the division of the Davidic monarchy into the Southern Kingdom of Judah and the Northern Kingdom of Israel following the death of King Solomon. According to I Kings, Jeroboam, the first king of Israel in the north, instituted an ingathering festival “like the feast that was in Judah.” I Kings 12:32-33. The liturgies from these festivals naturally found their way into the psalms, the hymnals of the worshiping communities in both Israel and Judah. It is believed that verses 8-11 of Psalm 80 (not included in our reading) constitute the portion of the liturgy in which Israel recites the saving acts of God.

You brought a vine out of Egypt;
you drove out the nations and planted it.
You cleared the ground for it;
it took deep root and filled the land.

The mountains were covered with its shade,
the mighty cedars with its branches;
it sent out its branches to the sea,
and its shoots to the River.

After the fall of the northern kingdom of Israel to Assyria in 722 B.C.E., its psalms, scriptures and worship traditions were brought into the southern kingdom of Judah by refugees and incorporated into Judah’s worship. Psalm 80, which references the northern tribes of Ephraim and Manasseh, was one of the psalms so transmitted from north to south.

As it now stands, Psalm 80 is a prayer for national restoration. Unlike Judah in the south which benefited from the presence of Israel and the Phoenician states to the north acting as buffers against Syrian and Assyrian aggression, Israel was exposed to the brunt of such aggression. Israel did not enjoy the stability of a ruling family such as the line of David which provided a measure of political stability for Judah. Israel’s government was volatile, unstable and subject to frequent coups and revolutions. Such violent changes in leadership were sometimes viewed as acts of salvation and were even instigated by prophets such as Elijah and Elisha. Divine leadership for the nation was sought more in charismatic individuals raised up by God’s Spirit to meet national emergencies than from dynastic succession. Hence, the prayer that God would “let your hand be upon the one at your right hand, the one whom you made strong for yourself.” Vs. 17.

A prayer for God to raise up a savior for God’s people is an appropriate one for Advent. Yet if we would read this psalm faithfully as Jesus’ disciples, we must juxtapose this prayer for deliverance to the kind of savior Jesus is and the powers from which he saves us. Rightly understood, this psalm brings into sharp focus the scandal of the cross: the Messiah is Jesus the crucified one. If we are looking for a more powerful, more effective and more efficient savior to implement the new creation by force of arms or other coercive means, we are bound to be disappointed. Jesus implements the kingdom of heaven by the slow process of limitless compassion, forgiveness and peacemaking. That means his disciples must live also in this slow and often seemingly ineffective process. Such a life tests our patience and endurance. That is why we have the Book of Psalms.

Romans 1:1–7

Why would our lectionary include a reading that consists only of the formal opening for Paul’s letter to the Romans when we will not hear from this letter again until Lent? The only rationale I can see is that Paul’s reference to Jesus as descended from David according to the flesh” sort of fits in with the gospel lesson-if that gospel lesson had included the genealogy in Matthew 1:1-17 (it does not). Otherwise, I am tempted to conclude that this Sunday in Advent came rather late in the day for the lectionary makers who at 4:45 p.m. wanted only to call it a day and go home.

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

Paul expands on this classic form by using it to express the content of his faith and to give us just a hint about what is to come. First, Paul establishes his credentials as an apostle set apart by God to proclaim the good news of Jesus Christ. Vs. 1 Second, he articulates his understanding of that good news as the proclamation of Jesus as God’s Son through the testimony of the scriptures and the testimony of God expressed by God’s resurrection of Jesus from death. Vss. 2-4. Finally, Paul zeros in on his particular calling to bring about “obedience of faith among all the Gentiles.” Vs 5

Paul calls himself a “slave” of Jesus Christ (translated as “servant” in most translations). He understands himself therefore to be the property of Jesus. It is not lost on Paul that Jesus exercised his Lordship through servanthood. That is why Paul can also say that he is a slave of the church for Jesus’ sake. II Corinthians 4:5. Paul’s understanding of the church is radically anti-hierarchical. Though Paul is not at all shy about asserting his authority, he emphasizes that such apostolic authority has been given him for one reason only: to serve and build up the church. II Corinthians 13:10.

Paul refers to himself as having been “set apart” for the gospel of God. The Greek word he uses, “aphorisemenos,” has the same root meaning (translated from the Hebrew) as the title “Pharisee,” which means “one who is set apart.” That linguistic link could not have been lost on Paul, himself a Pharisee. The irony here is that through his calling Paul has been set apart, not to be isolated from the rest of the world, but to be propelled into it. He is set apart for the mission of bringing together the new people of God under Christ Jesus. This expanded salutation is a great wind-up for the pitch Paul is about to make: his lengthy discussion of God’s inclusion of the Gentiles into the covenant relationship with Israel through the faithful ministry, obedient death and glorious resurrection of Jesus.

Matthew 1:18–25

While I can understand why you would not want to include the lengthy genealogy preceding this week’s gospel lesson in the readings, I also believe that it is impossible to appreciate Matthew’s account of Jesus’ birth without it. That genealogy traces the ancestry of Joseph all the way from Abraham and through the lineage of King David. See Matthew 1:1-17. Then, after having established Joseph’s Abrahamic and Davidic credentials, Matthew goes on to explain that Jesus’ conception had nothing to do with Joseph. We are told that Joseph’s espoused wife was pregnant with a child not his own. So what was the point of the genealogy? If anyone’s genealogy matters in this story, it would be that of Mary, and we don’t know squat about her family tree.

I think Matthew is doing a couple of things here. For one thing, he wants to make it clear that God is doing a new thing. The Holy Spirit is again brooding over the waters and the birth of this child is a new creation. God does not need Abraham to produce his Messiah. The Baptist has told us already that God can make children of Abraham from stones. Matthew 3:9. Neither does God need the line of David to produce a new King. To be sure, the Messiah is first and foremost Israel’s Messiah and is given according to the covenant promises made exclusively with her. But the Messiah is a gift of grace to Israel no less than to the Gentile believers who will follow.

Mary’s virginity and the miraculous conception of Jesus have become foundational in so much thinking about the Incarnation. These topics are far too complex for this brief post (and this preacher) to tackle. Nevertheless, I believe it necessary to take a close look at what Matthew is saying (and not saying) here. It is obvious that Mary is pregnant and that Joseph is not the father. It is also clear that the child conceived in Mary is “from the Holy Spirit.” Matthew 1:20. That means quite simply that the Holy Spirit was active in bringing about the conception of Jesus. Matthew does not tell us how the Spirit operated in this case, whether by some human agent or through what we would call “supernatural” means. The Spirit, we know, can work either way. Furthermore, it is well known that the Hebrew text from our Isaiah reading, cited here as having been fulfilled by Jesus, states only that a young woman will conceive and bear a son. Isaiah 7:14. It says nothing about her sexual history or marital status. This does not rule out either Mary’s virginity at the time of Jesus’ conception or that the conception constituted a miraculous intervention without any other human involvement. But one cannot look to Matthew for support in arguing these assertions.

Finally, although the genealogy preceding our gospel lesson is not a part of the appointed text, I think a couple of comments are still in order. First, anyone examining them with care will soon discover that they contain significant discrepancies from the genealogical records of the Hebrew Scriptures. I don’t believe Matthew found that at all problematic as his use of them was not intended to provide a credible pedigree for Jesus. As noted earlier, Matthew did not believe such genealogical grounding to be necessary. For him, the genealogy is a literary device intended merely to show that the Messiah, though born into Israel, is not a product of Israel and his mission extends beyond Israel. For a very thorough discussion of where this genealogy came from and how it might have come into Matthew’s possession, see Brown, Raymond E., The Birth of the Messiah-A Commentary on the Infancy Narratives in Matthew and Luke, (c. 1977 by Raymond E. Brown, pub. Doubleday & Company) pp. 69-70.

What I find most interesting about the genealogy is the inclusion of four women. Such inclusion of women in an ancient Jewish genealogy is itself unusual as lines of ancestry were traced exclusively through male descendants. Even more intriguing is the choice of women singled out. First is Tamar, the rejected wife of Judah’s several sons who posed as a prostitute in order to conceive Judah’s child. There was Rehab, the friendly prostitute of Jericho who assisted Joshua’s spies in scouting out the city in preparation for attack. According to Matthew’s genealogy, she became the wife Boaz, the husband of Ruth, a woman of Moab, whose own seductive measures won her marital status. Finally, Bathsheba is noted as the one through whom the ruling line of Davidic kings proceed. For the story of David and Bathsheba, see II Samuel 11-12:25 or refer to my post of Sunday, June 6, 2013. These women have the dubious distinction of being outside the lineage of Israel or of having borne children outside the legal bonds of wedlock. One cannot help but wonder whether their inclusion is intended to reflect on Mary’s situation and illuminate the work of the Spirit in her life as in theirs.

I must also confess that I have often wondered whether the Gospel of Matthew was not composed or edited by a woman’s hand. Perhaps the inclusion of these women, all of whom played active and often assertive roles in the divine drama, was the author’s way of reminding us that “we are in this too, you know.”

Sunday, December 11th

THIRD SUNDAY OF ADVENT

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

PRAYER OF THE DAYStir up the wills of all who look to you, Lord God, and strengthen our faith in your coming, that, transformed by grace, we may walk in your way; through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

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

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

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

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

Shine, Perishing Republic  

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

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

Isaiah 35:1–10

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

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

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

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

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

Psalm 146:5–10

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

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

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

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

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

James 5:7–10

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

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

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

Matthew 11:2–11

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, November 13th

Twenty-Sixth Sunday after Pentecost

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

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

This Sunday’s lessons are hard to hear. They all bear the dreadful news of God’s judgment. Even the Psalm, which is a jubilant hymn of praise, ends with the dire warning that the Lord “comes to judge the earth.” I am not sure how to preach these texts as good news in the shadow of an election cycle that has laid bare for us the darkest angels of our nature and exposed the deep race, class, gender and ideological divides in our nation. By the time Sunday rolls around, the question of who is to occupy the oval office will have been settled. But I doubt that the deep wounds we have inflicted upon one another will be on their way to healing anytime soon. With all of the raw anger hanging in the air, what healing effect can be expected from preaching the anger of God? With all the judging we have done against one another over the last year, what good can possibly come from turning up the volume of that anger to cosmic dimensions?

Perhaps there is a silver lining here. After all, anger thrives only between siblings, neighbors, people who have some connection to each other. Even enemies are bonded, if only by their mutual hate. I wouldn’t much care what a perfect stranger thought or did about something in which I have no interest. Our anger, then, is at least a testament that our identity as a people remains intact. We are united by matters about which we all passionately care. My hope is that we will eventually find the grace to see beyond our differences to a good that is common to all of us. Whoever occupies the White House during the next four years will have no greater challenge than helping us catch a glimpse of that good which is greater and more inspiring than all of our own selfish interests.

So, too, I believe that the anger of God testifies to God’s abiding commitment to God’s creation and God’s people. It is the shape God’s passionate love takes in a creation distorted, exploited and ruined by the selfish appetites of its human creatures. It is precisely because God loves us so dearly that God says “no” to our self-destructive impulses, “no” to our Promethean ambitions to exploit the earth, “no” to the exaltation of our own clans, tribes and nations over God’s gracious reign. God will not permit us to achieve peace at the expense of justice, happiness at the expense of compassion or wealth at the expense of the poor. Yes, God is angry, but not because of anything we have done directly to God. Yes, God inflicts punishment, but not because God cannot abide infractions against God’s law. God is angry over the misery our sin inflicts upon ourselves and our neighbors. God’s punishment aims not to repay us for our wrong doing, but to curb our self-destructive impulses which, left unchecked, would destroy us. God’s judgment is God’s mercy though, like headstrong toddlers bent on running into the street, we see God’s stern intervention only as a malicious restraint on our willful freedom.

Paul reminds us in his second letter to the Church in Corinth that we are Christ’s ambassadors sent to proclaim reconciliation between God and humanity. We are the new people of God who are, as John of Patmos reminds us, made up of every tribe, language and nation. Reconciliation is the only way forward for the church and, I believe, for the nation and for the world. We cannot hope to rid ourselves of all the folks we don’t like. Twelve million undocumented immigrants, generations of descendants of slaves still smarting from the sting of racism, women steadfastly pushing with their gifts and abilities into what used to be a man’s world, gay, lesbian and transgendered persons seeking justice and legal protection for their families; angry white men who feel that their jobs, their culture and their very country is slipping out of their hands; we are all here to stay. There can be no future for America that does not include us all. Reconciliation is not an option. It is our only hope. We cannot afford to allow any obstacles to deter us from pursuing it. The pursuit of anything less is too horrible to contemplate.

Here’s a poem about the dreariness, resentment and joy of human connectedness by John Updike.

Relatives

Just the thought of them makes your jawbone ache:
those turkey dinners, those holidays with
the air around the woodstove baked to a stupor,
and Aunt Lil’s tablecloth stained by her girlhood’s gravy.
A doggy wordless wisdom whimpers from
your uncles’ collected eyes; their very jokes
creak with genetic sorrow, a strain
of common heritable that hurts the gut.

Sheer boredom and fascination! A spidering
of chromosomes webs even the infants in
and holds us fast around the spread
of rotting food, of too-sweet pie.
The cousins buzz, the nephews crawl;
to love one’s self is to love them all.

Source, Collected Poems, (c. 1993 by John Updike, pub. by Alfred A. Knopf, Inc.). John Updike (1932-2009) was a prolific American author and poet. He grew up in Shillington, Pennsylvania. His early poems and fiction are grounded in the gritty industrial and cultural environment of the rust belt. His awards include the Pulitzer Prize for fiction, the American Book Award for fiction and the National Book Critics Circle Award for both fiction and criticism. You can learn more about John Updike and read more of his poetry at the Poetry Foundation website.

Malachi 4:1–2a

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

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

This lesson serves as a reminder that salvation cannot come without judgment. Forgiveness does not benefit the sinner apart from the sinner’s repentance. Sanctification is the flip side of salvation by grace. Faith that does not transform is something less than faith. If one does not come away from an encounter with God full of stark terror or with a broken bone or with blinded eyes, then you have to wonder whether the encounter was with the God of Israel and the Father of Jesus Christ. Nobody comes away from a meeting with the living God unscathed. Yet, though God be ever so terrifying, God is nevertheless good. It is a measure of God’s compassion that God takes the trouble to judge us, refine us and resurrect us as new people.

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

Psalm 98

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

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

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

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

2 Thessalonians 3:6–13

The relationship between the form and substance of II Thessalonians and I Thessalonians has led most commentators to believe that II Thessalonians was composed by a Christian leader writing to a later generation in the name of Paul and his colleagues. However that might be, this second letter echoes Paul’s admonitions to the Thessalonians in the first letter not to concern themselves with “times” and “seasons” for the triumphal return of Christ. I Thessalonians 5:1-11. Here, too, Paul urges the church “not to be quickly shaken in mind or excited, either by spirit or by word or by letter purporting to come from us to the effect that the day of the Lord has come.” Vs 2. He then continues to discuss the appearance of “the man of lawlessness” and the “rebellion” preceding the second coming. This particular section of scripture has given rise to much speculation and is one of the texts that appears to have inspired the Left Behind series. Paul (or the anonymous author) does not explain who the “man of lawlessness” is, nor does he say much about the force that is “restraining him now” discussed in the omitted verses 6-12. Evidently, he assumes that the readers know perfectly well what he was talking about and they probably did. We, alas, have no clue. That is what happens when you read someone else’s mail.  You might also want to read the summary article on enterthebible.org by Matt Skinner, Associate Professor of New Testament for some good background on this brief letter.

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

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

Additionally, I cannot help but feel that the church itself is partly responsible for creating this problem. Back in the days when everyone went to church, evangelism (such that it was) consisted of little more than consumer marketing. Because we assumed that everyone was looking for a church, we advertised our church as the best in town. We touted our air conditioned buildings; our youth programs; our Sunday Schools and varied activities for seniors. Even when our outreach was specifically religious, we sold our faith as a consumer good. The trouble with consumer advertising is that it only draws consumers and consumers only consume. When we ask them to contribute, they balk-and rightly so. They were lured into our midst with the promise of freebies. Then we go and stick an offering plate under their nose, ask them to give up an evening every month to be on a committee or spend their Saturday raking our leaves. It’s a classic bait and switch.

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

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

Luke 21:5–19

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

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

Frankly, I think Conzelmann was wrong. I am not convinced that Jesus thought the end of the world or the consummation of God’s kingdom was imminent. I believe rather that Jesus understood the kingdom as having come in its fullness through his ministry and that he invited his disciples to join him in living under its jurisdiction. I also think he understood that life under the reign of God would take the form of the cross until the “coming of the Son of Man,” the timing of which is known to God alone. I am unconvinced that the church anticipated the immediate return of Christ. Though mindful that the Son of Man would come “like a thief in the night” and that watchfulness was important, I believe the church well understood that Israel waited 400 years for liberation from Egypt; wandered for 40 years in the wilderness before entering the Promised Land and spent 70 years in exile before returning home from Babylon. Though perhaps tempted by “end times” hysteria (as is our own age), the church understood from the get go that God will not be rushed. The church also understood that God can be trusted to supply her with whatever might be required to complete her journey-however long that journey might take. In short, there never was a “crisis of faith” in the early church over the supposed delay of Jesus’ return necessitating a re-write of the church’s preaching or self-understanding.

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

What the disciples should be preparing for is an indefinite time in which they are to live as children of their Heavenly Father in a world hostile to his reign. They can expect persecution from the government, from their fellow countrymen and even from members of their own families. Vs. 12. The disciples must be prepared to give their testimony and may do so with confidence as Jesus will give them “a mouth and wisdom which none of [their] adversaries will be able to withstand or contradict.” Vs. 15. Though the “end” may not be imminent, the kingdom surely is-and the world’s opposition to it as well. The faithful disciple can therefore assume that tribulation will be the status quo. Nevertheless, such tribulation is not to be met with fear and foreboding. While the rest of the world is running for cover, disciples of Jesus are invited to hold their heads high in hope. They understand their trials to be not death-throws, but birth pangs.

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

Sunday, May 15th

Day of Pentecost

Acts 2:1–21
Psalm 104:24–34, 35b
Romans 8:14–17
John 14:8–17

Prayer of the DayGod our creator, the resurrection of your Son offers life to all the peoples of earth. By your Holy Spirit, kindle in us the fire of your love, empowering our lives for service and our tongues for praise, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

“The peace of God it is not peace, but strife closed in the sod,
Yet let us pray for just one thing—the marvelous peace of God.”

Final verse of the hymn, They Cast their Nets in Galilee, by William Alexander Percy (1885-1942).

Jesus promised his disciples peace-but not peace such as the world gives. The peace of God is not an uneasy co-existence; a tacit agreement to avoid discussion of volatile issues; a light healing of deep wounds festering under the surface. If it is possible to disturb the peace by speaking the truth, then it isn’t true peace. It is not the peace of God.

This last weekend I attended the assembly of my Lutheran church’s New Jersey Synod where we attempted to engage in conversation about race and the continuing scourge of racism. That this conversation is necessary is evidenced by my church’s unenviable status as one of the most thoroughly segregated denominations in the United States. Yet having such a conversation is difficult, painful and frustrating in large part because so many of us who identify as white are simply blind to the reality of systemic racism and its insidious influence on every aspect of life. After all, we ended segregation in the 60s. We have both elected and re-elected an African American president by substantial electoral and popular majorities. The era of Jim Crow is over. How bad can things be?

Pretty bad. We still find state and municipal police departments in which blatantly racist e-mails are regularly exchanged. The disproportional rate of incarceration for black males remains high and a distinguished fraternity fosters a culture encouraging derisive songs about excluding black Americans complete with racial epitaphs and allusions to lynching. No doubt, we have made progress toward racial equality since the 1960s, but we have still got a long way to go. The continuing presence of racism understandably makes people of color angry and impatient. We white folk react with fear and defensiveness. Though I think we had some good dialogue, things sometimes got a little ugly.

It is tempting to avoid difficult discussions about race, human sexuality, immigration and poverty. That would yield for us “peace such as the world gives.” But again, that is not true peace. It does not comport with Paul’s insistence that through baptism we are all united as one people through Christ. Such peace as the world gives runs contrary to John of Patmos’ vision of a multitude “from all tribes and peoples and tongues standing before the throne and before the Lamb.” For that reason, the church must reject the false peace offered by the powers and principalities that would maintain the status  quo. We cannot settle for a church that imports into its assemblies and polity the sinful pretenses that divide humanity. Racism is an attack upon the very core of the gospel. It is sin. The church of Christ does not ignore sin or turn a blind eye to it. It confesses sin, repents and opens itself to newness of life.

The peace of God does not come cheap. It inevitably upsets our settled existence and disturbs the peace imposed by the worldly powers that be.  In a recent book Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann explains how the Hebrew scriptures narrate ancient Israel’s ongoing encounter with a profound and uncontrollable reality experienced through her relationship with her surprising and ever innovative God. Brueggemann, Walter, An Unsettling God, (c. 2009 Fortress Press) pp. 3-4. Much the same thing can be said about the Book of Acts in which the Holy Spirit always seems to be a few steps ahead of a church that is frantically trying to keep up. I doubt the small group praying for an outpouring of the Holy Spirit the night before Pentecost had any idea that they would be deluged by three thousand new believers of different cultural backgrounds, different languages and different worship traditions. Even so, these new believers were at least united by their common Judaism. But while the church was still reeling from its Pentecost growth spurt, Philip began speaking the good news to the hated Samaritans and Peter took the unthinkable step of baptizing a family of gentiles. I expect that for many in the church, this was all just too much change too fast.

We see in the Book of Acts indications of how the church’s unity was strained with conflict as a result of its inclusiveness. Almost from the beginning it appears that there was some rivalry and tension between the Greek and Palestinian Jews over the distribution of food among their respective dependent widows. Acts 6:1-6. We have seen how Peter got himself into hot water by baptizing a family of gentiles without proper authorization. Paul’s ministry, though formally approved by the Jerusalem council, seems to have remained controversial among a number of traditionalists. You don’t get growth without growing pains.

The peace of God is won not through avoiding conflict, but by taking it head on. There is no way to a new heaven and a new earth except through the hard work of repentance, forgiveness and reconciliation. That is why the Spirit of God comes, not to smooth things over, but to stir things up. Pentecost is, among other things, a reminder that God never intended for the church to be static and changeless. To follow Jesus is to be transformed into a people capable of living in the peace of God. Here’s a poem by Loretta Roche on the severe mercy of the Spirit that drives us toward repentance, faith and renewal.

Spirit

I have no comforting to bring you;
Mine is no cool sweet balm to lend
For a wound that aches, or a mind that darkens.
I am not one to be called a friend.

For when your hands are scarred and broken
From shaping stony words to a song,
Cutting a meaning from glossy marble,
My voice will bite like an iron prong.

And I will sting you when you falter
With a word bitter as driving snow;
I have not lost the way of twisting
That whip I used to have—you know?

No one can silence me with weeping;
You cannot hush my voice with prayers.
When you would seek out a room of refuge
I shall be waiting on the stairs.

You shall not rest while I am near you-
Mine is a will that does not bend.
I have no comforting to bring you,
And you will hate me to the end.

Source: Poetry Magazine (April 1925) published by Poetry Foundation. For other poems by  Loretta Roche See the Virginia Spring Quarterly (Fall 1926).

Acts 2:1–21

In the Book of Acts, Luke continues the story begun in his gospel. Recall from our discussion of the Transfiguration that Luke likens Jesus’ coming suffering, death and resurrection in Jerusalem to another “Exodus,” that is, a saving event on a par with Israel’s deliverance from Egypt. See Post for February 7, 2016. Throughout his telling of the story, Luke has sought to demonstrate a history of salvation in the ministry of Jesus and its continuation through the church. This history is told against the backdrop of the Roman Empire that has been lurking in the background from the beginning. The empire takes an interest in Jesus during his ministry in Galilee and moves to crush him as he makes his very determined last trip to Jerusalem. Luke means to show us that history is made not in the capital of Rome, but in the backwaters of the empire where a homeless couple gives birth to an infant in a barn. The word of God comes not to the Temple in Jerusalem, but to a ragged prophet in the wilderness of Judea. God’s glory is revealed not within the Holy of Holies, but outside the city on a hill overlooking a garbage dump where the vilest of criminals are executed.  Caesar is not Lord. Jesus is.

The second chapter of Acts takes us to the next episode of Luke’s salvation history, the outpouring of the Holy Spirit upon the disciples. Pentecost or “Feast of Booths” was intended as a reminiscence of the fragile dwellings in which the Israelites lived during their 40 years of travel through the desert after the Exodus from slavery in Egypt. According to the prophet Zechariah, this feast of booths will become a universal festival in the last days during which all the nations will make pilgrimages annually to Jerusalem in celebration. Zechariah 14:16-19. The gathering of many Diaspora Jews in Jerusalem and their receptiveness to the disciple’s preaching indicates that the long awaited messianic age has arrived.

Some scholars have pointed out that later rabbinic teachers understood Pentecost not merely as a harvest festival or reminiscence of the wilderness wanderings, but a commemoration of God’s appearance to Israel upon Sinai and the giving of the law through Moses.  Gaster, Theodore H., Festivals of the Jewish Year, (c. New York: Morrow, 1952) cited by Juel, Donald, Luke Acts-The Promise of History, (John Knox Press, c 1983) p. 58. Thus, if Jesus’ ministry culminating in Jerusalem was God’s new Exodus, Pentecost corresponds to God’s descent to Israel on Mount Sinai. The mighty wind and flame reported in Luke bring to mind the Sinai appearance accompanied by fire and storm. The speaking of the disciples in multiple languages corresponds to rabbinic legends claiming that the law given to Moses was miraculously translated into every language under heaven. See Juel, supra citing Lake, Kirsopp, “The Gift of the Spirit on the Day of  Pentecost,”  Beginnings of Christianity,5:114-16.

Pentecost was understood by some Jewish writers as a commemoration of the renewal of God’s covenant with the earth made through Noah. See Jubilees 6:17-18. Such awareness on Luke’s part is entirely consistent with the universal appeal of his gospel. It is also tempting to read the Pentecost story as the undoing of the confusion of tongues imposed by God as a judgment upon the nations at the Tower of Babel in Genesis 11:1-9. I don’t believe that it is necessary to select any of these interpretations of the Pentecost event over all of the others. Luke is not building a ridged typology tying the Church’s story to that of Israel. Rather, he is alluding to episodes in the Hebrew Scriptures that illuminate the new thing God is doing through Jesus. Pentecost can therefore be seen as a new revelation from God poured out upon the disciples and spilling over into the languages of all nations. It can be understood as a revocation of God’s judgment of confusion upon a rebellious people bent on storming heaven. It is a new event in which God “storms” into the life of the world. Or Pentecost can be seen as an allusion to the coming of the messianic age through the ingathering of God’s people. Whichever emphasis one might wish to give this story, Luke means for us to recognize in it the mission of the church that will take the disciples to “the ends of the earth.”

One final note: the folks gathered here are all “devout Jews.” Though they come from Jewish communities throughout the Mediterranean world and speak the languages of the places in which they live, they are nonetheless people of Israel. Inclusion of the Gentiles, though hinted at throughout Luke’s gospel, is not yet on the church’s agenda. Nevertheless, it can be said that the mission to the Gentiles can be seen in embryonic form among these diverse Jews through the languages and cultures they have internalized.

Psalm 104:24–34, 35b

This psalm is a remarkable hymn to God, the Creator. Its focus on God’s sovereignty over the earth, sea and sky reflects a date after the Babylonian Exile where Israel was exposed to and tempted by the creation myths from the religion of her Chaldean captors. The Babylonian Enûma Eliš saga relates how the earth was created out of a civil war between the gods and how humans were created from the divine blood shed in that conflict for the purpose of serving the victorious gods. By contrast, this psalm describes creation as the sovereign act of the one God whose merciful and compassionate care ensures stability and sustenance for all creatures. There is no hint of conflict or struggle in the act of creation. Wind and flame are God’s “ministers” (the same word used for “angels”). Vs 4.  The feared sea monster, Leviathan, understood in near eastern mythology to be a fearsome and threatening divine agent, is not a rival god or even God’s enemy in the biblical view of things. It is merely another of God’s creatures in which God takes delight. Vss. 25-26. Everything that lives depends upon God’s Spirit, without which there is no existence. That Spirit is capable not only of giving life, but also restoring it. vs. 30.

This psalm has theological affinities with the creation story in Genesis 1:1-2:3, also composed during the period of Israel’s exile. Here, too, everything is brought into existence by the sovereign word of God that declares everything made to be “good.” Human beings are created not from the blood of conflict, but from the dust of the earth and in God’s image. They have not been made to serve as a race of slaves, but to be fruitful, multiply and rule over the good world God has made. The sun, moon and stars are not magical entities whose movements and alignments control the fate of people and nations. Rather, they are luminaries created to provide light for the benefit of God’s creatures. This is not a world of haunted horrors in which humans are at best slaves and at worst collateral damage in an ongoing struggle between gods and demons. It is a good world ruled by a generous and compassionate Creator.

While Babylonian religion has long since faded into the dead zone of history, I still believe that in this so called “post-modern” era we are confronted with a secularized paganism. Babylonian religion portrayed a world ruled by warring gods, each having its own sphere of influence and all of which needed to be placated by human beings living at their mercy. So also I believe for us contemporaries, the world seems a soulless place at the mercy of economic currents, military struggles and social expectations exercising tyrannical power over us. Humans are viewed as “cheap labor,” “voting blocks,” “collateral damage,” “demographic groups,” and categorized by other dehumanizing labels. The earth is viewed as a ball of resources to be used up freely and without limitation by anyone having the power to control and exploit them.  This psalm still testifies to the holiness of the earth as God’s beloved creation, not the battlefield for warring national, commercial and tribal interests. Unlike the Babylonian vision, the world is not a house haunted by warring demons. Neither is it a dead and soulless planet governed by political, social and economic determinism or the currents of random historical accidents.

Romans 8:14–17

For my take on Paul’s letter to the Romans generally, see my post of Sunday, February 14, 2016. Here Paul is contrasting the life of faith in Jesus Christ with the life of bondage under “law.” It is critical to understand here that Paul is not speaking of law as “Torah,” or the totality of God’s covenant relationship with Israel. It cannot be overemphasized that Israel’s covenant with God was emphatically based upon God’s mercy, compassion and grace. Paul is using the term “law” to characterize the quality of one’s relationship with God apart from grace. If the Torah is understood not as God’s gift, but rather a tool by which to win God’s approval or a source for boasting of one’s special status before God, it leads only to death and condemnation. For both Jewish and Gentile believers, adoption as God’s people is based on God’s election and God’s mercy alone.

In sum, “law” as Paul uses it here represents an attitude of entitlement before God based on one’s lineage or accomplishments. Even the good news of Jesus Christ can become “law” if it is preached as a demand, requirement or condition of God’s mercy, i.e., “You have to believe in Jesus to be saved.” Such preaching makes faith a condition that we must satisfy to placate God rather than a gift of the Holy Spirit that sets us free from the need for such placation. Faith is not a condition of salvation, but the thankful response of a forgiven heart to the good news about what Jesus has done for it. For Paul, faith comes through the preaching of the good news about Jesus and is inseparable from that preaching. Romans 10:5-17. Life in the Spirit of God is the very antithesis of life in bondage to “law,” however conceived. The requirement to “measure up,” is gone. The struggle is no longer to become worthy of adoption as God’s children, but rather to conform our lives to the ways of the holy people God has already declared us to be.

John 14:8–17

There is a lot going on in these verses obscured by the fact that we are getting only a snippet of a much longer discourse. To highlight the essentials, Jesus responds to Philip’s request that Jesus “show us the Father” by telling him that he has already seen as much of the Father as ever will be seen. God is Jesus. But take care that while we can say that God is Jesus, we cannot use that statement interchangeably with the false statement, “Jesus is God.” The reason this latter statement is untrue follows from John’s declaration in the first chapter of his gospel: “No one has ever seen God; the only Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, he has made him known.” John 1:18. To say that Jesus is God is to imply that we already know who God is and that we recognize the Godly characteristics we spot in Jesus. This makes of Jesus nothing more than a mask of God or a clever disguise. Jesus obscures rather than reveals God.

John would have us know that we know nothing of the Father apart from the Son. It is only because God becomes flesh (not disguises himself as flesh or pretends to be flesh) that people otherwise incapable of seeing God actually do see God. It is for that reason that the bulk of our creeds is devoted to articulating our faith in Jesus. We know nothing of the Father other than as the Father of Jesus Christ. Similarly, we know nothing of the Spirit apart from that which proceeds from the Father and the Son. It is the job of the Holy Spirit to glorify Jesus and take what belongs to Jesus and declare it to the church. John 16:14-15.

It is not entirely clear what Philip’s expectations were when he asked that Jesus “show” him the Father. He might have had in mind the appearance of God on Mt. Sinai in smoke, thunder and fire. Or perhaps he was expecting some prophetic vision as experienced by Isaiah or Ezekiel. In either case, Jesus gives him more than he has requested. For truly seeing and knowing God involves more than witnessing marvels and seeing visions. Knowing God involves the sort of intimacy Jesus experiences with his disciples and the love he has consistently shown them-even “to the end.” John 13:1-17.  Because God is Jesus and the Spirit of God proceeds from Jesus and the Father, Jesus’ “going away” does not constitute “abandonment.”  Indeed, Jesus will henceforth be more intimately present to his disciples and their understanding of him clearer precisely because they will soon be indwelt by his Spirit. Jesus will be “in” them just as the Father is “in” him. John 17:20-21.

I will have more to say about the Holy Trinity next week. Suffice it to say, though, that the outpouring of the Holy Spirit is a Trinitarian event that makes sense only as an act of the Triune God.

 

Sunday, May 1st

Sixth Sunday of Easter

Acts 16:9-15
Psalm 67
Revelation 21:10, 22-22:5
John 14:23-29

Prayer of the Day: Bountiful God, you gather your people into your realm, and you promise us food from your tree of life. Nourish us with your word, that empowered by your Spirit we may love one another and the world you have made, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

My own Lutheran protestant tradition does not put much stock in dreams as revelatory devices. Martin Luther was particularly scornful of the “heavenly prophets” among his Anabaptist critics who claimed to be guided and inspired by dreams and visions. His instincts were not altogether wrong in that respect. Dreams and visions are notoriously unreliable. Even when they have turned out to be prophetic, their messages have often been tragically misinterpreted. For example, the Lydian king, Croesus, was assured by an oracle from the shrine at Delphi that, should he attack the Persian Empire, he would destroy a great kingdom. His confidence bolstered by the oracle, Croesus attacked Persia and was soundly defeated. The oracle proved true with a vengeance. Croesus did indeed destroy a great kingdom; however, the kingdom he destroyed was not that of Persia but his own. Moses warned the people of Israel to beware of false prophets and that warning was not in vain. Throughout its long history Israel was plagued by false prophets speaking not only in the name of foreign deities, but also in the very name of the Lord. St. John warns the church to “test the spirits” to ensure their authenticity.

Still, we dare not throw out the baby with the bath water. Despite all of these salutary warnings, dreams and visions are frequently employed by God to guide God’s people throughout the biblical narrative. It was through Joseph’s dreams that his father Jacob and the rest of the descendants of Abraham were saved from starvation and brought safely to Egypt. God spoke to the prophets Jeremiah, Ezekiel and Daniel through dreams. Joseph the husband of Mary and the Magi were guided to safety by dreams in Matthew’s gospel. In today’s reading from Acts, St. Paul’s dream re-directs his mission from Asia Minor to Europe. Our reading from the Book of Revelation is just one piece of an extended vision delivered to John of Patmos in a dream-like state. As troublesome as dreams and visions are for us 21st Century moderns, we dismiss them at our peril. We dare not allow our fear of being misled to blind us to the leading of God’s Spirit.

I have to confess that I have never in my life had a dream that I thought was revelatory. The few that I remember seem clearly to be products of my anxieties, repressed fantasies and past memories. Maybe that is true of everyone’s dreams, but is that all they are? Is it possible that the Spirit of God engages these subconscious fragments, fuses them together in new and unique ways and thereby invites us to recognize connections, relationships and correlations between aspects of our lives and experiences we could not otherwise have seen? Are the thoughts we repress, the fears we deny and the memories we have discarded the raw materials for God’s imaginative studio?

Though, as I said, I’ve never had a guiding dream or vision of my own, I have been richly blessed by those of others which manifest themselves through music, graphic arts and poetry. Through these media my imagination has been stimulated and my mind stretched. It is for this reason that I am able to believe in the resurrection of Jesus Christ to which the gospels testify and the new creation about which John of Patmos writes. I know these things to be real because I have been carried up into them on the wings of music and verse. I have seen them come alive in paintings and sculpture. They enter into my heart and soul through drama and dance. It was a scientist, Albert Einstein, who once said that imagination is more important than knowledge. It is by the exercise of imagination that we see beyond what merely is to what might be-and truly is-if we but have eyes to see and ears to hear.

Sadly, we are raising up an unimaginative generation. I recall hearing on NPR about a recent survey showing a marked decrease among young people of individuals believing that world peace is a possibility for our future. I can’t vouch for that survey because I could not locate it. But such an outcome, assuming it to be accurate, should not surprise us. After all, we are a nation that increasingly devalues the arts. Our schools regularly defund courses in music, dance and graphic arts in favor of more “practical” subjects that prepare students for the all-important labor market. When education becomes all about manufacturing units of labor instead of cultivating minds, it produces a people incapable of imagination. The earth inherits a generation that cannot imagine anything beyond what is and that is incapable of doing anything other than maintaining the machinery of oppression, inequality and injustice that is late stage capitalism. In such a stark and unimaginative landscape, politics becomes a relentless struggle for domination, economic life morphs into systemic enrichment of the few at the expense of the many and faith degenerates into moralism. We lose the capacity to dream.

The poet Langston Hughes once mused over what happens to dreams in such an unimaginative environment.

A Dream Deferred

What happens to a dream deferred?

Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore—
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over—
like a syrupy sweet?

Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.

Or does it explode?

I think Hughes knew well, as did the prophets and apostles, that dreams and visions are explosive. Paul’s dream changed the course of his mission and planted the church in new soil. John of Patmos’ Revelation helped the struggling churches of Asia Minor recognize the cosmic importance of their day to day struggle to remain faithful in the hostile culture of imperial Rome. At its best, the church has always recognized music, verse, dance and graphic arts as its essential allies in winning obedience of hearts and minds to the gentle reign of God in Jesus Christ. The arts are the natural language of the gospel. And so perhaps the most radical thing we can do is teach our daughters to play musical instruments, read poetry to our sons and lead our children in dance. Planting the explosive of creative minds under the oppressive societal structures that bind us sets the stage for an unleashing of the Spirit akin to what the prophet Joel describes:

“I will pour out my spirit on all flesh;
your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,
your old men shall dream dreams,
and your young men shall see visions.
Even on the male and female slaves,
in those days, I will pour out my spirit.”

Joel 2:28-29.

Source: Selected Poems of Langston Hughes (c. 1926 by Alfred A. Knopf, pub. by Random House, LLC, 1990). Langston Hughes was an important African American voice in the “Harlem Renaissance” of the 1920s. Though well-educated and widely traveled, Hughes’ poetry never strayed far from his roots in the African American community. Early in his career, Hughes’ work was criticized by some African American intellectuals for portraying what they viewed as an unflattering representation of back life. In a response to these critics, Hughes replied, “I didn’t know the upper class Negroes well enough to write much about them. I knew only the people I had grown up with, and they weren’t people whose shoes were always shined, who had been to Harvard, or who had heard of Bach. But they seemed to me good people, too.”  Today Langston Hughes is recognized globally as a towering literary figure of the 20th Century. This particular poem inspired the play A Raisin in the Sun by Lorraine Hansberry that debuted on Broadway in 1959. You can read more about Hughes and discover more of his poetry at the Poetry Foundation website (from which the above quote is taken).

Acts 16:9-15

If you back up and read Acts 16:6-8, you will discover that Paul seems to have been floundering in Asia Minor. None of his plans come to fruition. His mission strategies repeatedly prove unsuccessful. At every point it seems that “the Spirit of Jesus,” is thwarting his efforts to proclaim the gospel. I have been there too, but I cannot say that I recognize Jesus in any of that. To me it looks like plain old failure and nothing more. That leads me to wonder whether Paul recognized the obstacles thrown in the way of his mission work as “the Spirit of Jesus” at the time. Of course I don’t know, but I suspect that Paul was probably frustrated, angry and maybe a little despondent about his repeated failures in Asia. Perhaps it was not until he was drawn to change his focus to Macedonia, met Lydia and her friends, planted the church in Philippi which would later bring him such joy and comfort that Paul finally recognized in his prior failures the work of the Holy Spirit directing him. Sometimes I think that perhaps we are not supposed to be visionaries. Maybe God purposely does not reveal the path ahead of us. It may be that our vision, our strategizing and “intentionality” just get in the way. Perhaps we are entitled only to light sufficient for the next step we have to take and should be satisfied with that. Maybe that is what it means to “walk by faith and not by sight.” II Corinthians 5:7.

This is all thoroughly consistent with Luke’s view of the ministry as wholly under the direction of the Spirit. It is the “word of God” that grows and multiplies. Acts 12:24. “The word of God increased; and the number of the disciples multiplied greatly…” Acts 6:7. Just as the Spirit of God used the martyrdom of Stephen scattering the disciples throughout Judea and Samaria to bring the gospel to the Samaritans, so now the Spirit somehow hinders Paul’s Asia mission in order to redirect him to Europe. See Acts 8:1-8. Even open hostility to the preaching of the word is turned by the Spirit to the service of the word.

As was his custom, Paul begins his mission to Philippi by going to the Jewish community. Evidently, there was no synagogue in Philippi. That might have been due to Roman hostility to Jewish influence in what was an imperial colony. It is also possible that the Jewish presence was too small to support a synagogue. Nevertheless, there was evidently a place outside the city where Jews gathered for prayer and worship. This is where Paul met Lydia, accepted her hospitality and baptized her and her household. As in his gospel, so also in the Book of Acts, Luke pays particular attention to the role of women in the church. It appears that the congregation gathered at the place of prayer consisted primarily, if not exclusively, of women. If Lydia had a husband, there is no mention of him. The church in Philippi thus appears to have been founded and led by women according to Luke’s account.

Psalm 67

Most scholars characterize this as a psalm of thanksgiving for a bountiful harvest based largely on vs. 6a, “The earth has given its increase.” It has been suggested that this hymn might have been sung as a festival liturgy during the autumn festival. Weiser, Arthur, The Psalms, A Commentary, (c. 1962, S.C.M. Press, Ltd.) p. 472.Though a good harvest surely is a testimony to God’s goodness and faithfulness to Israel, it is but one of many reasons for praise given in this hymn. God’s saving power, God’s justice and God’s guidance for the nations are all as much reason for the psalmist’s lavish praise. It is noteworthy that the blessing for which the psalmist prays is not restricted to Israel alone. S/he prays that Israel may be blessed in order that “all the ends of the earth may fear God.” Vs. 7.

The opening words of this psalm appear to have been taken from or inspired by the Aaronic Benediction at Numbers 6:24-26. The peoples are enjoined to praise and rejoice in God. God does not reign over the world by compulsion or force. Rather, God “dost judge the peoples with equity and guide the nations upon the earth.” Vs. 4. As pointed out in Isaiah, God rules the earth through “the law” and through “the word of the Lord.” Isaiah 2:2-4. The psalm therefore echoes God’s promise repeated to the patriarchs and echoed throughout the prophets, particularly Second Isaiah, that Israel is to be a nation by which all the other nations of the world are blessed. “I will make you a great nation, and I will bless you, and you will be a blessing.” Genesis 12:2. “And by your descendants all the nations of the earth will bless themselves.” Genesis 26:4 “And by you and your descendants shall all the families of the earth bless themselves.” Genesis 28:14 “It is too light a thing that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and restore the preserved of Israel; I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.” Isaiah 49:2.

Revelation 21:10, 22-22:5

I understand the need to keep lectionary readings to a manageable length. But that does not justify the ruthless butcher job that has been done to this text. The missing verses between 10 and 22 give us a graphic description of the Holy City, the New Jerusalem coming down from God, the place where God will dwell among God’s people. I encourage you to read those verses now before continuing with this post.

The first thing you will notice is John’s fixation on the number twelve. The wall of the city has twelve gates inscribed with the names of the twelve tribes of Israel. The city has twelve foundations inscribed with the names of the twelve apostles. The dimensions of the city are 12,000 by 12,000 stadia. Each wall is 144 (12 x 12) cubits. The base of the walls is adorned with twelve different jewels. So what is the significance of the number twelve and all of the numbers divisible by twelve?

Of course, the number twelve has always carried symbolic significance throughout many different cultures for a number of different reasons. There are twelve divisions of the lunar year and twelve signs of the Zodiac. The number twelve is important to the Sumerian number system, one of the most ancient in the near east. From the standpoint of the Hebrew Scriptures, there were twelve tribes of Israel, though one might properly ask whether the number twelve derives its significance from the tribes or whether the tribes were divided into twelve in order to fit the sacred number. There were, strictly speaking, thirteen tribes of Israel owing to the fact that the Joseph tribe was split into Ephraim and Manasseh (Joseph’s two sons).  The land of Canaan was nevertheless divided into twelve territories because the priestly tribe of Levi did not receive an allotment of land, but only cities within the tribal territories. Joshua 21.

Each of the four gospels affirms that Jesus had twelve disciples that were especially close to him throughout his ministry. The list of their names differs between the gospels, but that is of minor significance. The twelve disciples correlated with the twelve tribes and thus emphasize the continuity between the mission of Jesus and the calling of Israel. The same point is made here with the twelve gates, the twelve foundations and the twelve jewels of the New Jerusalem inscribed both with the names of the twelve tribes of Israel and the twelve apostles of the Lamb.

Knowing this, we get a much deeper appreciation for the imagery in our lesson. From the calling of Abraham God has made clear Israel’s mission of being a light to the Gentiles and a nation of blessing for all the nations of the world. The gospels all point to Jesus as the Son of God and the savior of the world. John’s gospel refers to Jesus as “the light.” So now we see the consummation of God’s work with Israel in Jesus expressed through this image of the Holy City whose “lamp is the Lamb” and “by its light shall the nations walk.”  Once again, John of Patmos is weaving together a mosaic of images from the Hebrew Scriptures into a marvelous portrait of the Lamb’s final victory that will be brought about by the persistent suffering love of God and revealed through the faithful obedience of God’s people.

John 14:23-29

Obviously, the lectionary folks were not having a good day when they served up this Sunday’s menu. This reading does not make sense until you back up one verse to vs. 22. There you will discover that Jesus’ words here are in response to a question asked by Judas (not Judas the traitor, but another disciple named Judas). Jesus has been telling his disciples that he will soon be leaving them to go where no one can find him. Judas quite naturally asks him, “Lord, how is it that you will manifest yourself to us, and not to the world?” Why indeed? If Jesus really is the light of the world, the water of life, the resurrection and the life, and if Jesus is now going away, why is his identity made clear to so very few? Why does not Jesus reveal himself to all Israel? To the whole world?

Jesus responds that he will be made known to the world. The disciples drawn together by Jesus’ love will keep his commandments (which we know by now boil down to loving one another as Jesus has loved them). This love will be a witness to the whole world that God has sent the Son into the world and that the Father loves the Son yet gives up the Son to suffering and death for the sake of the world. Moreover, Jesus’ departure is not abandonment. The Holy Spirit sent by the Father is not a substitute for Jesus, but his more intense and intimate presence in their midst. Through that Spirit animating the church Jesus will continue to speak words of promise, healing, hope and resurrection.

Although John’s Gospel never refers to the church as such, it is clearly a center of concern for John, perhaps even the greatest concern of all. It is by the church that the Father’s love for the Son is made manifest to the world through the disciple’s love for each other. It is by this love that the world will know that we are Jesus’ disciples. Thus, what the church becomes is every bit as important as what the church does. Indeed, what the church does can be nothing other than what arises out of who the church is.

 

Sunday, April 24th

Fifth Sunday of Easter

Acts 11:1-18
Psalm 148
Revelation 21:1-6
John 13:31-35

Prayer of the Day: O Lord God, you teach us that without love, our actions gain nothing. Pour into our hearts your most excellent gift of love, that, made alive by your Spirit, we may know goodness and peace, through your Son, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

“A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another.” John 15:17

The opposite of love is not hatred, but indifference. The mayor and leaders in Flint, Michigan did not set about with malice in their hearts to poison the children of that broken city. They did not intend for anyone to get hurt. They only wanted to find a cheap and easy solution to an expensive problem. They wanted to balance the budget. I expect they probably knew in the back of their minds that there was a risk involved with drawing the city’s drinking water from the Flint River. Perhaps they were even warned of the dangers by civil engineers and environmental specialists who knew better. But they didn’t care enough to investigate the dangers or plan for the potential consequences of their actions. They had eyes only for the bottom line. Red ink on the town’s financials was more troubling to them than the red blood of Flint’s households.

Indifference kills more of us than malice. We die at the hands of drivers who know they are too inebriated to drive but don’t want to shell out money for a cab. We die at the hands of drivers who can’t be bothered to pull off the road before responding to a text message. Our children die because the gun industry will have its profits and it is the price we will gladly pay to preserve our precious Second Amendment rights. We die because our consumptive way of life poisons our water, fouls our air and destroys the ecosystem that sustains us. Even when human lives are taken by evil people with malicious intent, it is often because the rest of us lack the desire, the will and the courage to stop them. As writer and philosopher Edmond Burke points out, “all that is necessary for evil to succeed is that good men do nothing.”

Indifference takes a terrible toll on our souls as well. If St. Augustine is to be believed (and I think he is), we were created to love God. The only true temple God has is the flesh in which his Word is revealed. The only way love for God can be practiced is through our love for the neighbor made in God’s image. That is why John tells us in his letter that if we claim to love God yet harbor hatred for any of God’s human children, we are liars. I John 4:20. Whatever we worship when we come to God with cold and indifferent hearts, it is not God. Whatever we are calling “God”-even if we name it Jesus-it is not God. It is instead merely a reflection of our own twisted and depraved selves, an idol. Idols are not God, but they have the power to shape us into their own lifeless images if we allow them to become gods for us. That is the terrible fate from which Jesus came to deliver us.

Jesus came to make us angry with the wrath of God. For some people in this new age culture of blissful tolerance, an angry God is offensive. As one clergy person recently told me, “anger is unworthy of God.” (This from a preacher? God help us all.) But if God is not angry over the needless poisoning of Flint’s children; if God is not angry that a third of us live in comfort while two thirds struggle to stay alive; if God is not angry over the unnecessary police shootings of young black men; then I can only conclude that God doesn’t much care about us. But God is not indifferent. Anger is the shape love takes toward wayward children bent on following their own self-destructive paths. God’s anger, however, does not translate into revenge, retribution or punishment. God’s anger translates into a stubborn and patient determination to break our hard hearts, shock us into seeing the world the way God sees it-and weeping. Jesus came to save us from our indifference, to help us weep over the destruction we have wrought upon ourselves and one another, to make us truly human. He came that we might become a people capable of love.

Here’s a poem by James Wright that captures precisely our predicament-and suggests its cure.

Three Stanzas from Goethe

That man standing there, who is he?
His path lost in the thicket,
Behind him the bushes
Lash back together,
The grass rises again,
The waste devours him.

Oh, who will heal the sufferings
Of the man whose balm turned poison?
Who drank nothing
But hatred of men from love’s abundance?
Once despised, now a despiser,
He kills his own life
The precious secret,
The self-seeker finds nothing.

Oh, Father of Love,
If your psaltery holds one tone
That his ear still might echo,
Then quicken his heart!
Open his eyes, shut off by clouds
From the thousand fountains
So near him, dying of thirst
In his own heart.

Source:  Wright, James, The Branch Will Not Break, (c. 1963 by James Wright, pub by Wesleyan University Press) p. 14. James Wright was born in Martins Ferry, Ohio in 1927. In addition to his own work, Wright is also well known for his translations of Spanish poets. In 1972 he received the Pulitzer Prize for poetry. He died in 1980. This poem actually consists of three stanzas Wright translated from Goethe’s poem, “Harzreise im Winter.” You can learn more about James Wright and sample more of his poetry at the Poetry Foundation website.

Acts 11:1-18

Peter has a few problems on his hands. For starters he woke up from a terrible dream in which God was commanding him to eat a whole bed sheet full of disgusting animals including reptiles. This is more than just disgusting. It is downright wrong. Leviticus 11 makes very clear to Israel that the eating of such animals as appeared to Peter in that sheet was an “abomination.” As a matter of fact, even touching one of these animals renders a person unclean for the rest of the day! What do you make of such a dream? Could this possibly have been the voice of the Lord? Or was it the voice of the devil tempting Peter? Before Peter has a chance to reflect much on his dream, three men arrive at the house where he is staying. They were sent by Cornelius, a Roman Centurion. They inform Peter that Cornelius would like to see him and request that he come with them to Caesarea. I cannot imagine that Peter was thrilled about all of this. When the commander of the occupation force wants to see you in his office, it’s usually not a good thing. Yet the Spirit of God urges Peter to go along and he does.

Arriving at the home of Cornelius, Peter discovers that he is not going to be imprisoned or interrogated. He is instead invited to dinner. In fact, the whole household of Cornelius is present to hear what Peter has to say about Jesus. Eating unclean food is bad enough. Eating it in the home of a Gentile is unthinkable. Everything Peter ever knew and believed about the Scriptures told him that he really ought to get up, tell these folks he had nothing to say to them and excuse himself. But something much deeper in Peter’s heart was telling him to accept the hospitality of Cornelius and his family and to preach the gospel to them. That “something,” was the Spirit of God. Before Peter finishes his sermon, the Spirit of God fills Cornelius and his family just as it did the disciples at Pentecost. I don’t think Peter had worked out all the theological implications of what had happened or what he did next. But when you see the Spirit of God calling someone to faith-how can you not baptize?

Next thing you know, Peter is in hot water with the Synod. “Why did you go to uncircumcised men and eat with them?” he is asked. I expect that the Jerusalem leadership probably pointed out to Peter that his actions were contrary to the guidelines, procedures and requirements for mission and ministry. Though perhaps we might someday consider bringing the gospel to the Gentiles, such a step will constitute a substantial departure from the church’s understanding and practice. Such a profound change should not be made prior to rigorous study, theological reflection and deliberation. The proper procedure would have been to submit the question via resolution to the general assembly which would probably commission a task force to issue a report. After a five year study of the issue, the assembly would then be in a position to make a reasoned and comprehensive decision on whether such a policy change is warranted and, if so, how it should be implemented. That is how we Lutherans do things. If we had been in charge back then, this whole Cornelius affair would never have happened. Thank God we weren’t in charge-and still are not.

Throughout the Book of Acts, the Spirit seems always to be a few steps ahead of the church which is frantically racing to keep up. Things are happening so fast and furiously that the Apostles find themselves confused, bewildered and anxious about the direction of the church. So for people today who complain that the church isn’t what it used to be, that it is changing too fast and it’s not the church they grew up in, I have just four words: Get used to it. The Acts of the Apostles, this marvelous story about the early church, reminds us that we don’t control the mission, ministry or future direction of the church. It turns out that God seems to be active in the places we least expect. Faith is born among the folks you would least expect to be receptive. About all we can ever say about the shape of the church in the future is that it will certainly not be what we expect.

This story also tells us something about the authority of the Bible. Peter appeared to be on solid scriptural ground with his scruples about socializing among, eating with and finally baptizing Gentiles. Turns out he was wrong. That should be a lesson for all of us who are so cock sure we know what the Bible requires. “The Bible is inerrant!” said a fellow from the church in which I was raised as he brought his fist down on the book. Perhaps so, but its interpreters are fallible human beings. All you need to do is google the word “Bible” and you will discover some of the wildest, wackiest and witless notions ever expressed by people who think they have the Bible figured out. So it is quite possible to get the Bible wrong and the church has done that on many occasions. That is why we had the Reformation. That is also why the church’s understanding and interpretation of the Scriptures is always evolving, changing and growing in new directions. That is why Jesus promised his disciples that “when the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth.” John 16:13. Because we don’t have all the truth, we are prone to misread and misinterpret the Scriptures in myopic, self-serving ways. We need the Spirit to poke and prod us into taking a new look at the Bible, questioning our assumptions about what it means and listening to people who might read it altogether differently than we do.

Finally, we need the whole church to read the Bible properly. Though Peter was right to heed the voice of the Spirit when he found himself in the household of Cornelius, the extension of the church’s mission to the Gentiles was, in the end, a product of deliberations by the whole church. At the Holy Spirit’s prompting, Peter responded faithfully to the opportunity before him to share the gospel. But he did not simply dismiss the rest of the church or move forward with the mission to the Gentiles autonomously. Instead, he took the initiative to go up to Jerusalem in order to explain and defend his actions. He laid out his case for the Gentile mission before the church for its discernment and judgment. I expect that there was some spirited debate and Scriptural arguments put forth by all sides of the issue. In the end, Peter was able to persuade the church to move in the direction the Spirit led him at the home of Cornelius. That is how it should be.

Psalm 148

This psalm is beautifully structured. It begins and ends with an expression of praise: Hallelujah or “Praise YAHWEH.” The injunctions to praise begin with the heavens, the angels, the sun, moon and stars descending to the earth and its creatures. The forces of nature, geographical features (mountains and hills) and plant life all are called to join in the choir of praise to God. All people from mighty kings, to slave girls to small children are drawn into this cosmic hymn of praise to the Creator. Finally, the call to praise is directed to “the people of Israel who are near to him.” The perfect symmetry of this psalm is further illustrated by its final focus on this one particular people who, though at the narrowest end of the spectrum, are nonetheless “near” to the almighty Creator God.

This psalm is pure praise. It seeks nothing from God. It is not offered up in thanksgiving for any particular act of goodness or salvation on God’s part. The psalmist praises God because that is what creatures, all creatures, even “inanimate” creatures do. It is what we are created for according the Westminster Shorter Catechism. The longer I live, the more I am convinced that this might well be so and that perhaps a major source of our misery stems from our failure to understand it. The universe was spoken into existence by God and so its very existence is an act of praise. Praise is therefore nothing other than going with the grain of the universe. It is recognizing that joy is found only as we learn to sing our little piece in tune with the rest of the choir. Only then does our voice amount to anything worth listening to. If we were not so terribly absorbed in pursuing whatever it is we think will make us happy and accomplishing what we believe to be important and establishing our own legacy, we might not mind so much that we are after all “grass that withers and flowers that fade.”

Revelation 21:1-6

This passage begins a lengthy portrayal of the new creation brought about by the victory of the Lamb. Once again, it bears repeating that this victory will come about not through violent conquest in the manner of the “beast,” but through the faithful obedience of the saints in the face of hardship and persecution. There will be continuity between the new creation and the old. God does not destroy the work of his hands. He “makes it new.” This parallels Paul’s thinking about the resurrection in I Corinthians 15:35-50 where he explains the relationship between the mortal body and the resurrected body by analogy to the relationship between the seed and the full grown plant. While there is continuity, the plant is nevertheless far more than the seed. Note also that the saints do not go up to the new Jerusalem. The new Jerusalem comes down to them.

Jerusalem as the beloved of God is a recurring image throughout the Hebrew Scriptures. There is a rich prophetic tradition foretelling God’s salvation coming forth from this holy city. The most notable is Isaiah 2:1-4. There the prophet declares that “out of Zion shall go forth the law, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.” Once again, God’s reign in Zion is not one of violence and conquest. It is a reign of law and justice. There will be no further need for weapons as the Lord will judge between nations. The nations themselves “shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore.” Psalm 87 is yet another instance in which Zion is lifted up as a unifying symbol for all peoples of the world. So also in Revelation Jerusalem is again at the center of God’s saving work “prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.” Revelation 21:2.

“Behold, the dwelling of God is with men.” Again, the term used for “dwelling” is the same root used in John 1:14where the evangelist says, “the word became flesh and lived among us.” Literally translated, the verb translated “live with” or “dwell with” means to “tent with” or “tabernacle with” or “camp among.” This language once again evokes the memory of God’s presence for Israel in the tent of meeting that accompanied her throughout her journey from Egypt to the land of Canaan. It is more than this, however. As you can discover by reading on to the 22nd chapter of Revelation, there is a description of a rebuilt Temple in the midst of Jerusalem from which flow the river of the water of life. This, in turn, echoes Ezekiel’s vision of the restored temple in Ezekiel 47. In this vision also a river flows from the gates of the temple throughout the land of Israel refreshing, restoring and making fruitful areas formerly arid and dry. These verses also allude to the declaration made by Second Isaiah to the disheartened exiles in Babylon: “Remember not the former things, nor consider the things of old. Behold, I am doing a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert.” Isaiah 43: 18-19.

John of Patmos is weaving all of these images from the Hebrew Scriptures into his lyrical portrayal of the Lamb’s victory in which the struggling churches of Asia Minor will share. This lesson is yet another illustration of how critical the Hebrew Scriptures are for understanding the New Testament. Reading the New Testament without knowing the Hebrew Scriptures is like getting the punch line without the joke.

John 13:31-35

Much of what I have to say about this lesson is already in my introductory remarks. Here are a few additional things worth noting. The reading begins with Jesus declaring: “Now is the Son of Man glorified and in him God is glorified.” vs. 31. It is important to note that just prior to this Judas slipped away to betray Jesus into the hands of his enemies. Thus, the glorification of which Jesus speaks is his betrayal and crucifixion. It is glorification because it reflects the depth of Jesus’ love for his disciples and God’s love for the world. On the cross, the world will see the heart of God breaking for humanity.

The “new commandment” calling the disciples to love one another does not appear to be new. The Hebrew Scriptures admonished the people of Israel to “love your neighbor as yourself.” Leviticus 19:18. The commandment is nevertheless “new” insofar as the paradigm of love is the cross. Thus, it is no longer enough to love your neighbor as yourself only, but to love as God in Christ loves you. This is higher intensity love that is not possible for the disciples unless they continue to abide in Jesus. For reasons previously discussed, I believe that practicing such love is the principal reason for the church’s existence. It is through such love that all people will know that we are Jesus’ disciples and that God sends Jesus not to condemn the world, but that the world may have life through him.