Posts Tagged war
FIFTH SUNDAY AFTER EPIPHANY
PRAYER OF THE DAY: Everlasting God, you give strength to the weak and power to the faint. Make us agents of your healing and wholeness, that your good news may be made known to the ends of your creation, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.
“Lift up your eyes and see: who created these? He who brings out their host by number, calling them all by name.” Isaiah 40:26.
“[God] determines the number of the stars, he gives to all of them their names.” Psalm 147:4.
The International Star Registry (ISR) is an organization founded in 1979 for the purpose of giving the general public an opportunity to name stars in honor or memory of a loved one. The company claims to have named about two million stars since its formation. These christened stars are then copyrighted and published in a series of books. I don’t know what legal effect, if any, attaches to naming a star through the ISR. Nor do I understand quite how one can be certain that his or her star is not being resoled under numerous different names and dedicated to any number of different individuals. But perhaps my concern is misplaced. After all, there are probably more stars in the universe than we poor mortals can begin to name.
Which brings us to the lessons for this coming Sunday, two of which tell us that God not only numbers, but also names the stars. There is something reassuring about God’s knowing and even having names for stars that we will never see. Stars beyond the reach of our most powerful telescopes; stars that have gone dark ages before our planet was born; stars that will be born after our sun has gone dark-all of these stars and the worlds circling them are intimately known by the One who calls them into existence. That being the case, argues the Prophet Isaiah, how can Israel complain that “My way is hidden from the Lord, and my right is disregarded by my God.” Isaiah 40:27. How can Israel imagine that the God who knows and treasures each molecule of the universe could lose track of God’s own covenant people?
Nonetheless, I have no doubt that the people of Judah did feel quite forgotten, living as they were as exiles in a land not their own. I can imagine their faith withering away along with their native language, spoken less frequently day to day and, by the younger generation, perhaps not at all. How long before this once great nation evaporates and disappears into the mist? How long before the sacred texts have no one to read and interpret them? How long before Israel joins the list of peoples known only to archaeologists by the few tell-tail artifacts they have left behind? It is terrible to be forgotten. One great fear I discover time and again among the people I serve is the terror of being forgotten, the fear that there will be no one left to weep at their passing, none to remember the lives they have lived, no one to name a star for them. Then, too, there are the nameless ones known only as “collateral damage” in some conflict of which they wanted no part; body counts following some natural disaster; or statistics in some morbidity report. Numbers with no names.
Sometimes I think we resist giving names to the nameless because doing so would open our hearts to their suffering and make it our own. Knowing that the “illegal aliens” we are so eager to get rid of have names, have children with names, identities, dreams and longings, in short, recognizing them as people makes it harder to banish them from our midst and forget them. Knowing that the “uninsured” is somebody’s baby that is going to die makes it harder to blather on about the love of Jesus and family values out of one side of your mouth while insisting that health care is not a right and should, on principle, be denied to any who can’t afford it. If we allowed ourselves to know the names of the millions who suffer to sustain the supremacy of white privilege, male hierarchy and “our American way of life,” it would crush us-in just the same way that this knowledge crushes the heart of God. Yes, to be a child of God is to experience the crushing pain of the universe God feels. It is to take up the cross.
Of course, this pain of naming the stars is the flip side of delighting in each one of them. God would have us love each molecule of the universe, each nameless face and each dying species as God loves them. Perhaps that is why the first task given to Adam at the dawn of time was to name the animals with whom he shared the Garden of Eden. By learning the names of the people that ring up our grocery bills, serve us our French fries, patrol our neighborhoods, pass us on the way to the bus stop, sit in detention centers awaiting deportation, stand on the corner with cardboard signs seeking help, expire all alone as anonymous patients in hospitals-we give them back their humanity. By learning the names of the plant and animal species in our own back yards we begin to appreciate the depth and complexity of this world in which all creatures are interconnected and interdependent. The most precious gift we can give each other is to call one another by name.
Here is a hauntingly sad poem about namelessness by Henry W. Rago.
These winds pass, and breathe a soft song for her,
And press their loving mouths upon the grass
Where yesterday she danced.
The twilight, grey-robed, comes from the glowing mist
To pin a blue star in her rippling hair-
But she is gone…
She left a song to tremble on these lips,
To beat its tired wings upon the narrow cage.
There is no more. The night swoops to the earth
Like a great bird,
And the river undulates into the purple dusk,
Not questioning, not knowing.
Source: Poetry (July 1993, c. Henry Rago). The son of a businessman, Henry Rago (1915-1969) graduated from the DePaul College of Law in 1937. Thereafter, he earned degrees in theology and philosophy from the University of Notre Dame. Rago served overseas in counterintelligence during World War II. After the war, he returned to the United States and taught both theology and literature at the University of Chicago until just before his death. Rago published only one collection of poetry during his lifetime under the title A Sky of Late Summer, (pub. by Macmillan Co., 1963). You can read more about Henry Rago and sample more of his poetry at the Poetry Foundation website.
Chapter forty of Isaiah marks the beginning of a section of that book commonly referred to as “The Book of Consolations” or “Second Isaiah.” Whereas the prophet Isaiah of the first thirty-nine chapters preached to Judah in the 8th Century as the nation lived uneasily in the shadow of the Assyrian Empire, the historical context of this unnamed prophet we refer to as “Second Isaiah” is Babylon’s defeat by Cyrus the Great in or around 538 B.C.E. Babylon’s policy was to carry into exile the leading citizenship of the nations it conquered. This reduced the potential for revolution in these captive provinces while bringing into Babylonian society thousands of skilled and gifted leaders. Cyrus’ policy was to permit peoples, such as the Jews, living in exile within the Babylonian territories he conquered to return to their homelands. Though often hailed as an enlightened and compassionate act, Cyrus’ policy was calculated to destabilize Babylon. When the captive populations learned that Cyrus intended to set them free, they were quick to rally to his side against their Babylonian rulers. The prophet of the Book of Consolations recognized in this new historical development the hand of God creating an opportunity for the people of Judah to return to their homeland-and much, much more.
Our lesson opens with a question: “Have you not known? Have you not heard? Has it not been told you from the beginning? Have you not understood from the foundations of the earth? It is he who sits above the circle of the earth…” vss. 21-22. This indicates a new development in Israel’s thinking about YAHWEH. Although Israel always praised YAHWEH as the greatest of all gods, she did not necessarily deny in principle the existence of other gods. See, e.g., Psalm 82 in which “God has taken his place in the divine counsel; in the midst of the gods he holds judgment.” Here the prophet makes the assertion that other gods have no more substance than the nations that depend on them. In fact, it is YAHWEH who raises up nations and kings for his own purposes. Vss. 23-24. The same goes for Israel. The kingdom under David served its purpose for a time and that time has passed. But does that mean YAHWEH is through with Israel as a people? No! Even though Israel has lost the line of David, the temple and its land-all the things by which it used to identify itself-YAHWEH still has a part for Israel to play. As the prophet points out later on, Israel’s new purpose is far greater than merely restoring the kingdom of David to its former glory. Isaiah 49:6.
“Lift up your eyes on high and see: Who created these?” vs. 26. Another rhetorical question. Ancient near eastern religion attributed dread powers to the stars and planets. Their alignment was believed to control the fate of nations and kingdoms. Not so, according to the prophet. YAHWEH created the stars, named them and set them in their courses to give light to the world. The universe is not a haunted house and the human race is not helplessly caught in the crossfire between warring deities. The world is the product of a Creator who wills salvation for the good earth that he made.
“Why do you say, O Jacob and speak, O Israel, ‘My way is hidden from the Lord, and my right is disregarded by my God’?” Vs. 27. Now the prophet comes right to the point. In view of the fact that God numbers the stars and presides over the rise and fall of all nations and peoples, how can Israel say that God has forgotten her? How can she imagine that YAHWEH’s salvation has failed? The prophet sums up his/her argument by pointing out that YAHWEH is lord not merely of Israel, but of the whole earth. Vs. 28. Not only so, but YAHWEH is concerned for the whole earth and all its peoples. Israel has an important role to play in that universal salvation of the whole earth that is about to be unveiled.
“They who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength.” Vs. 31. The Jewish exiles feel faint and powerless. They have lost the hallmarks that identified them as a people: temple, king and land. So the prophet encourages them with the promise that YAHWEH will renew their strength and enable them to take on the mission to which he is now calling them.
Clearly, the prophet would have us know that Israel’s God is the Lord of nature and history. The prophet is not encouraging fatalism here or a passive trust in God to make everything come out all right in the end. To the contrary, the prophet is keenly aware of the geopolitical events transpiring around him/her. Where most of the exiles might be tempted to see in Persia’s conquest of Babylon only a change of masters under the inevitable yolk of slavery, the prophet recognizes the hand of YAHWEH opening up an opportunity for Israel to begin anew. Just as God once parted the Red Sea for Israel to escape from Egypt, so now God is opening up a way for Israel’s departure from Babylon and return to the land of promise. This is nothing short of a new Exodus. So far from encouraging passivity, the prophet is calling his/her people to seize the moment and begin a bold, new undertaking filled with risk and promise.
Such prophetic imagination is critical for mainline churches in the North American context. For many of us exiles, the landscape looks bleak and unpromising. Never again will our great houses of worship be filled to standing room only on Sunday mornings. Never again will pastors command the honor, respect and social standing we knew during the first half of the prior century. Many of us oscillate between frantic efforts to make the old engine work as it used to and despairing inaction. Others of us recognize a unique opportunity for the church to shed cultural shackles that have compromised its ministry for more than a millennium and become the Body of Christ Jesus would have us be. As has always been the case, the future belongs to the prophets and those who share their vision.
For my discussion of this psalm in its entirety, I invite you to revisit my post of Sunday, January 4, 2014. Many of the same themes found in our lesson for Isaiah are echoed in the psalm. God “heals the broken hearted and binds up their wounds.” Vs. 3. God “determines the number of the stars, he gives to all of them their names.” Vs. 4. Most striking is this juxtaposition between the naming of stars and tender care for “the downtrodden.” Vs. 6. This care extends to the animal and plant population of the planet as well. God gives rain to “make the grass grow upon the hills.” Vs. 8. God “gives to the beasts their food.” Vs. 9.
I am particularly struck by verses 10-11 in which the psalmist reminds us that God takes no pleasure in physical prowess-a discordant note at this time as the nation looks with anticipation toward the Super Bowl. I make no apology for the delight I take in the strength of my Seattle Seahawks (not so impressive this year as in some others). I believe, however, that the psalmist’s reference here is not to athletic prowess, but to military strength. This disparagement of militarism is a consistent theme throughout the Hebrew Scriptures. Even in the Book of Joshua, which is very much about Israel and its wars against Canaan, victory is always attributed to the power of the Lord. A Veteran’s Day holiday would be unthinkable in Israel. No one in Israel would even think about “thanking a veteran” for victory, freedom or prosperity. To the contrary, the psalmist states unequivocally, “for not by their own sword did they win the land, nor did their own arm give them the victory; but thy right hand, and thy arm and the light of thy countenance; for thou didst delight in them.” Psalm 44:3.
America has a deep cultural affection for war heroes, tough cops and gun slinging cowboys whose freewheeling violence brings about a sort of frontier justice far more appealing than the hard-won kind meted out by courts of law. In their recent book, The Myth of the American Superhero, (c. 2002 Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.), John Shelton Lawrence and Robert Jewett argue that, in a culture that doubts the integrity and ability of its government and institutions to achieve justice, people are naturally drawn to the uniquely American “monomyth.” This “monomyth” supplies the underlying plot for stories about heroes who must take the law into their own hands in order to rid a community of evil. The world of entertainment is laced with such monomythic tales. We find them in the oldest black and white westerns that feature a virtuous gunslinger riding into town to rid the populace of a criminal gang neither the law nor the courts can handle. The same basic plot can be found in such recent productions as the Star Wars movies in which “jedi knights” with superhuman powers and a code of law all their own rise up to destroy an evil empire that has usurped the powers of the old republic. The most insidious element of this myth is the unspoken and unquestioned assumption that, when all is said and done, evil can only be eliminated by violence.
Nothing illustrates the futility and the horrific consequences of applying this simplistic Hollywood metaphysic to deeply complicated geopolitical conflicts than our recent military forays into the middle east in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. So far from vanquishing the powers of evil, these exploits have simply bred more powerful and increasingly violent enemies. Peace in the war torn middle east seems further away than ever. Nevertheless, the entertainment industry and our political leaders (who are more entertainers than leaders) continue to operate within the constricted parameters of the monomyth inflaming further conflict, sacrificing more lives and glorifying this senseless butchery with parades, memorial services and white crosses at Arlington Cemetery.
Our country needs in the worst way to have an honest conversation about the role of violence in our culture and its effect on everything from domestic relationships to foreign policy. I believe that the church is an excellent place for such a discussion to begin. We are as divided, confused and complicit with violence as the society at large. We are as caught up in the cult of the warrior and as oblivious to the insidious ideology of institutionalized brutality as are our unbelieving neighbors. We find it nearly impossible to distinguish the “way of life” our nation seeks to defend with the sword from the way of discipleship calling upon us to forsake the sword. We could use some strong pastoral leadership to get this discussion rolling.
“Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel!” vs. 16. There are echoes here of the prophet Jeremiah: If I say, ‘I will not mention him, or speak any more in his name’, then within me there is something like a burning fire shut up in my bones; I am weary with holding it in, and I cannot.” Jeremiah 20:9. Paul grounds both his apostolic authority and his motivation in his call. To be sure, he is entitled to compensation for his work of preaching as he has argued earlier in the chapter. I Corinthians 9:3-7. So also the believers in Corinth have a legal right to consort with prostitutes and are free from moral constraints against eating meat sacrificed to idols. But exercising a legal right does not equate with fulfilling a moral obligation. Being free to do something does not end the ethical inquiry for a disciple of Jesus. Again, everything comes down to what builds up the Body of Christ and enhances the church’s witness to Christ. True freedom, Paul argues, is not the liberty to do whatever you will, but the will to do that which serves Christ and his church. For the sake of the gospel Paul has forgone his “right” to make his living from his work as an evangelist.
Verse 19 sums up Paul’s major thesis: though free from the bondage of external legal/moral demands, the apostle is nevertheless bound to the service of his “neighbor” in the broadest sense of that word. That this obligation extends to those who Paul would win to faith in Christ demonstrates that this service is not limited to those within the church. As Martin Luther would put it fifteen hundred years later, “The Christian is a perfectly free lord subject to none; the Christian is a dutiful servant and slave to all.” What this amounts to is a reorientation of the Torah specifically and all “law” generally. Law is useless as a means of pleasing God. It is critically important, however, to the service of one’s neighbor.
This text is worth talking about because, in my own experience, most solid, pious, sincere, church attending people still don’t get it. I would say that most folks who self-identify as Christians still believe that God’s preoccupation is with the law and human obedience to it. It is almost as though God first created the law and then, as an afterthought, decided that it would be a good idea to create some people to obey all of God’s wonderful rules. So enamored is God with his rules that he can’t endure their violation nor can he forgive an infraction without extracting an appropriate penalty. In reality, however, God has no need of Torah. God’s people need Torah to protect their freedom from bondage to all that is less than God. Because “the Sabbath was created for humankind, not humankind for the Sabbath,” Sabbath law (and all the other commandments, statutes and regulations) must be interpreted and applied in ways that are life giving and freeing for God’s people.
The greatest commandment, as Jesus tells us, is first to love God above all and next to love one’s neighbor as oneself. Mark 12:28-31. Because one’s neighbor is created in God’s image, it is impossible to observe either of these commandments without obeying the other. In reality, the two commandments are one. Sometimes obedience to the greatest commandments means that other commandments, even one of the Ten Commandments, must be set aside. Mark 2:23-28. The polestar for interpreting and applying Torah, from Paul’s perspective (and that of Jesus as well), is love for the neighbor. Such love requires one to put oneself into the neighbor’s skin and see the world through the neighbor’s eyes, putting aside all judgment. It is in this context that we need to understand Paul’s remarks about “becoming all things to all people.” Vs 22. It is not that Paul molds his personality, convictions and ethical behavior to conform to the cultural norms governing whatever community in which he happens to find himself. Rather, his preaching and ministry are shaped by his understanding of his hearers, their experience of bondage and their longing for salvation. That is a model of mission and ministry worth emulating.
The messianic authority of Jesus displayed in the synagogue last Sunday with the exorcism of a demon is further illustrated through Jesus’ power over illness. First Century people tended to view illness as a personal force hostile to God’s intent for humanity akin to demon possession. Hence, the similarity between the healing accounts and exorcism stories in the New Testament. Nineham, D.E., Saint Mark, The Pelican New Testament Commentaries (c. 1963 by D.E. Nineham, pub. by Penguin Books, Ltd.) p. 80. The Greek word for “lift up” used to describe Jesus’ taking Peter’s mother-in-law by the hand and raising her up is one typically used in Talmudic literature to mean “cure” or “heal.” Ibid. at 81. That immediately following her healing Peter’s mother-in-law began to serve him and the disciples indicates the swiftness and completeness of the cure. I also believe that it illustrates how the exercise of God’s mercy is intended to enable the recipient to become a channel of God’s goodness to others.
The people come to Jesus at Peter’s home after sundown. As you may recall from last week’s lesson, this was a Sabbath day. The Sabbath ended at sundown, at which time it became permissible to carry the sick through the streets to the place where Jesus was and permissible also for Jesus to perform healings. In addition to healings, Jesus performs more exorcisms, commanding the expelled demons to keep silent about his identity as Israel’s messiah. This “messianic secret” has been the source of much scholarly debate. William Werde, a prominent commentator around the turn of the last century viewed this aspect of Jesus’ teaching as a literary invention of the early church to explain why Jesus was never recognized as messiah during his earthly ministry. Das Messiasgeheimnis in den Evangelien, Göttingen 1901. (Published in English as The Messianic Secret, London 1971). More recent commentators maintain that the secrecy motif goes back to Jesus himself who wished to conceal his messianic identity to prevent its being misunderstood. E.g., Taylor, Vincent, The Gospel According to St. Mark, Thornapple Commentaries (c. 1966 by Vincent Taylor, pub. by Baker Book House Co.); Cranfield, C.E.B., St. Mark, The Cambridge Greek Testament Commentary (c. 1959 by Cambridge University Press).
As Morna Hooker points out, there are problems with both theories. If Jesus himself had been concerned about being misunderstood, it hardly seems likely that he would have chosen a confusing and enigmatic title for himself like “son of man” while performing works that could not help but call attention to himself. Werde’s attribution of these secrecy commands to the early church in order to explain Jesus’ lack of messianic recognition are equally problematic. One of the few so called “historical facts” we can be reasonably sure of is that Jesus was put to death by Rome as a messianic pretender. Thus, whether he sought the title or not, Jesus was clearly thought to have assumed a messianic identity during his lifetime. Hooker, Morna D., The Gospel According to St. Mark, Blacks New Testament Commentaries (c. 1991 by Morna D. Hooker, pub. by Hendrickson Publishers, Inc.) p. 67. Nevertheless, Werde was correct insofar as he pinpoints the resurrection as the turning point in the church’s understanding of Jesus. It is not so much that Jesus’ resurrection caused the disciples to discover Jesus’ messianic identity as that it clarified for them the nature of his messianic mission. “It is not that the Church imposes a messianic interpretation on to a non-messianic life and death: rather, in light of Easter faith the disciples see events from a new perspective.” Ibid.
The “secret” functions throughout Mark in exactly the opposite way one would expect secrecy to work. Rather than concealing Jesus’ identity, it operates to reveal that identity to Mark’s readers. Jesus’ life, ministry and death remain an enigma and cannot be rightly understood until after he is raised from death. Only as God declares God’s emphatic “yes” to all that Jesus said, did and was can his messianic identity be properly recognized and believed.
Once again, to ask how much of the “secret” can be attributed to the so called “historical Jesus” is to raise a question the apostolic authors would neither have understood nor cared about. The peculiar belief that there exists a pure and objective history, unsullied by human interpretation and accessible to empirical historical critical investigation, is a relic of 19th Century thinking. Even what we observe with our own eyes is interpreted by layers of meaning we have accumulated through a lifetime of experience. So the question is not whether the gospel accounts comport with some non-existent objective historical standard, but rather whether the apostolic witness is a reliable testimony to who Jesus was and what he did for us. That question cannot be answered by any amount of historical critical research.
Following this Sabbath evening of healing, Jesus arose early in the morning and went out to pray. The readers of Mark’s gospel, who knew the Jesus story well, would probably make the connection between this “arising” and Jesus’ rising from death early on the morning of the first day of the week. In Mark there is no resurrection appearance of Jesus nor any account of the Great Commission if we accept (as I think we must) the ending of Mark’s gospel at Mark 16:8. Yet it has been persuasively argued that Mark’s resurrection encounter appears at the center of his gospel in his story of the Transfiguration. Perhaps in the light of Easter we can recognize in Jesus’ invitation for his disciples to follow him in declaring the good news to other towns and villages throughout Galilee and in the giving of the Great Commission.
FIRST SUNDAY OF ADVENT
PRAYER OF THE DAY: Stir up your power, Lord Christ, and come. By your merciful protection awaken us to the threatening dangers of our sins, and keep us blameless until the coming of your new day, for you live and reign with the Father and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.
Apocalyptic literature, such as we find in Sunday’s gospel, is hard for us mainline protestants to digest. We are progressive in our outlook. We expect the kingdom of heaven to come incrementally. Shaped as we are by 19th Century rationalism, we view our present state of civilization as the vanguard of a slow but steady march from barbarism to liberal democracy and beyond. We can point to enough instances of progress to make this view of reality somewhat plausible. We have outlawed the overt practice of slavery. We have created an international network of alliances, agreements and institutions which, though they cannot altogether prevent war from breaking out, limit the scale of warfare and provide mechanisms for resolving military conflicts that might otherwise drag on indefinitely. Freedom, equality and prosperity are reachable for more people today than at any other time in recorded history. All of this suggests that we are progressing toward a better day.
The gospel, however, challenges our faith in progress. The evangelist reminds us of truths we would prefer to ignore, namely, that the increased prosperity of some has come at the expense of many more who remain mired in poverty; that slavery has been abolished in name only and is very much alive for victims of human trafficking and millions laboring in harsh conditions for wages that cannot sustain them. The treaties and institutions that have maintained peace and stability in many parts of the world are experienced as oppressive and unjust to many who had no voice in their creation nor any role in governing them. Moreover, these institutions are beginning to collapse under the weight of a new nationalism spreading across the globe. Racist ideologies and patriotism grounded in “blood and soil,” once thought relegated to the dust bin of history, are on the rise. The hard-fought gains for people of color, sexual minorities and women in this country that we hoped were permanent are in danger of being lost. Our faith in progress is being shaken-and that might be a good thing because faith in anything less than Jesus is idolatry.
The evangelist warns us against the notion that we can obtain intelligence into the when and how of God’s coming reign. S/he assures us that the day of the Lord will come, but that the timing and method of its coming are beyond our comprehension. The evangelist is clear on one thing, however. The kingdom will not come through gradual, incremental, peaceful evolution. It will come through revolution, violence and bloodshed. The institutions to which we look for peace, stability and progress must be dismantled in the birthing of the new creation. To those of us who have traditionally looked to the institutions of the old order for security, peace and progress, that is a frightening word. Yet for the many who find these very structures oppressive, violent and unjust, the apocalyptic message of Mark is remarkably good news.
During the Advent season we are reminded that we can only wait for new creation. That is a bitter pill to swallow for those of us who would like simply to patch up the old creation. It is hard to be told that a “kinder, gentler empire” will not do. The evangelist is telling us that the new world cannot dawn without the death of the old. This means that a lot of what we hoped was permanent, a lot of what we believed was good, a lot of what we worked so hard to achieve will be dissolved before we arrive at God’s gentle reign of peace.
That isn’t to say that what we do in the meantime doesn’t matter. Precisely because we know the world ends in God’s reign of justice and peace, it matters all the more how we spend whatever time we have left. We must practice justice and peace now so that the world may know its destiny is God’s kingdom and so that we might be formed into the kind of people capable of living faithfully in that kingdom when it finally is revealed. Making the world a better place is not a vain effort. To the contrary, that is why human beings were created. It is critical, however, to recognize that nothing we accomplish, however good and important, is eternal. No gain that we make is irreversible. Neither our lives nor our accomplishments are immune from the “change and decay in all around I see.” We can hope, pray and even expect that our works of justice, compassion and mercy witness to the kind of world God is making. But we dare not confuse our efforts with God’s own redemptive work. By all means strive to make progress; but trust only in God.
Here’s a poem by Jones Very on that very point.
The New World
THE NIGHT that has no star lit up by God,
The day that round men shines who still are blind,
The earth their grave-turned feet for ages trod,
And sea swept over by His mighty wind,
All these have passed away, the melting dream
That flitted o’er the sleeper’s half-shut eye,
When touched by morning’s golden-darting beam;
And he beholds around the earth and sky
That ever real stands, the rolling shores
And heaving billows of the boundless main,
That show, though time is past, no trace of years.
And earth restored he sees as his again,
The earth that fades not and the heavens that stand,
Their strong foundations laid by God’s right hand.
Source: American Religious Poems, Harold Bloom and Jesse Zuba, editors; pub. by Library of America, Inc. p. 96. This poem is in the public domain. Jones Very (1813–1880) Though a minor figure in the American poetic pantheon, Very’s work was highly regarded by such prominent figures as Ralph Waldo Emerson and Bronson Alcott. He studied at Harvard Divinity School until he succumbed to religious delusions that lead to his expulsion. His style bears the mark of his devotion to William Shakespeare whose sonnets he often emulated. You can find out more about Jones Very and sample more of his poetry at the Poetry Foundation website.
The fifty sixth chapter of the Book of Isaiah opens into what scholars agree is a third collection of prophetic oracles separate from the prophet Isaiah of the 8th Century B.C.E. (Isaiah 1-39) and Second Isaiah (Isaiah 40-55) who prophesied toward the end of the Babylonian Exile. These prophesies, comprising what is commonly called “Third Isaiah” (Isaiah 56-66), come from a period beginning shortly after the return of the exiled Jews from Babylon in 539 B.C.E., but before the rebuilding of the temple in about 515 B.C.E. The band of exiles, inspired by the poetic promises of Second Isaiah to brave the dangerous journey across the Iraqi desert from Babylon to Palestine, arrived home to find Jerusalem in ruins and the land inhabited by hostile tribes. The Eden like path through the desert promised by Second Isaiah did not materialize. Life in Palestine proved to be difficult, dangerous and unpromising. The people were understandably disappointed and demoralized. This was the tough audience to which Third Isaiah was called to appeal. A people led to such a desperate plight by their belief in a prophet’s promises were probably not in any mood to listen to yet another prophet! Third Isaiah opens with the words, “Maintain justice and do what is right, for soon my salvation will come.” Vs. 1. You can almost hear the people groaning in the background, “Oh no! Here we go again!”
The prayer of lament that constitutes our lesson is, according to Professor Claus Westermann, one of “the most powerful psalms of communal lamentation in the Bible.” Westermann, Claus, Isaiah 40-66, The Old Testament Library (c 1969 SCM Press Ltd.) p. 392. The prophet does not take lightly the disillusionment of his/her people. Speaking in the voice of the community, s/he cries out, “O that thou wouldst rend the heavens and come down…” vs. 1. Like the rest of the people, the prophet longs for God’s intervention. The prophet reminds God (as though God needed reminding!) that there was a time when God did act decisively on Israel’s behalf. The prophet alludes to the saving acts of God in the past. Though lacking in specificity, the prophet’s references to “terrible things that we looked not for” might well include the Exodus, the Conquest of Canaan, the triumphs of Samuel and David. Vss. 3-4. God acted then, so why not now?
Of course, the prophet knows and the people no doubt suspect that the reason for God’s silence is tied to their own lack of covenant faithfulness. Yet the people cannot help but feel that God’s anger is out of proportion to their offenses. In verse 5, the prophet cries out, “Behold, thou wast angry, and we sinned…” The order here is most curious. It almost seems as though the people attribute their sin to God’s anger. How can one believe in and trust a God whose wrath is so unsparing? No wonder that “no one calls upon [God’s] name, that bestirs himself to take hold of [God].” Vs. 7. It is God “who has delivered [Israel] into the hands of [her] iniquities.” Vs. 7.
Our reading ends with a plea for God not to be so exceedingly angry. Vs. 9 “Thou art our Father,” the prophet declares. “We are the clay, and thou our potter; we are the work of thy hand.” Vs. 8. In verses 11-12 (not in our reading) the prophet calls God’s attention to the holy city of Jerusalem and the once great temple of Solomon, now in ruins. The poem concludes with a haunting question: “Wilt thou restrain thyself at these things, O Lord? Wilt thou keep silent, and afflict us sorely?” vs. 12.
This prayer strikes a resonant note for an age that seems far removed from miracles and unequivocal words and acts of God. For a good many modern folk, the stories of the Exodus and the Resurrection are just that, stories. At best, they are metaphors for experiences that fit neatly within the narrow confines of our secular frame of reference. For the most part, though, they are archaic myths that we have long outgrown. Those of us who still believe long for the God of the Bible to “rend the heavens and come down” so that we might be assured that the line to mystery, revelation and renewal has not gone dead. Are we shouting frantically into a broken connection? Is there no longer any listening ear on the other end?
I would encourage you to read chapter 65 of Isaiah in addition to our lesson. There you will find God’s response. God, it seems, is equally frustrated by the lack of communication. “I was ready to be sought by those who did not ask for me,” God replies. “I said, ‘Here am I, here am I,’ to a nation that did not call on my name.” Isaiah 65:1. Though God might not be responding with the fireworks Israel is seeking, God is responding nonetheless. So perhaps the problem is not with God’s silence, but with our lack of perception. Perhaps we cannot hear the word of the Lord because we have bought into the limited and limiting vision of empiricism. Perhaps the silence of God can be attributed to our lack of capacity to imagine, contemplate and be open to mystery. Maybe God is even now rending the heavens and coming down and we have only to open our eyes and look up to see the Advent of our God.
This is a psalm of lament. Mention of the tribes of Ephraim, Benjamin and Manasseh suggest that this was originally a psalm of the Northern Kingdom of Israel. Dating is difficult. The portrait of the land of Israel as an abandoned vineyard with its defenses torn down and its fruit at the mercy of any passing beast certainly fits what must have been the case following the Assyrian conquest in 722 B.C.E. Nonetheless, we must keep in mind that the Northern Kingdom was considerably less stable politically than Judah under the line of David. It was also beset by its hostile neighbor, Syria, which frequently expanded its holdings into Israelite territory. Thus, it is entirely possible that this psalm dates from as early as the 9th Century. After the fall of the Northern Kingdom to Assyria, it is probable that this psalm and other literary traditions from the north were brought to the Southern Kingdom of Judah and incorporated into what ultimately became the Jewish scriptures. Anderson, Bernhard W., Out of the Depths-The Psalms Speak for us Today (c. 1983 by Bernhard E. Anderson, pub. by Westminster Press) p. 171.
As we saw in last week’s lesson from Ezekiel, the term “shepherd” is commonly associated with kings and rulers. “Enthroned upon the cherubim” (vs. 1) is an allusion to the presence of God symbolized by the Ark of the Covenant which had images of two of these heavenly beings on its cover. Exodus 25:17-22. Though the Ark had likely been captured or destroyed by this time and, in any event, would not have been in the possession of the Northern Kingdom, this term for God’s majesty lived on.
Like the psalm from Isaiah, this psalm also implores God to act and asks “how long wilt thou be angry with thy people’s prayers?” vs. 4. This is a common refrain throughout the psalms of lament. See, e.g., Psalm 13:1-2; Psalm 74:10; and Psalm 79:5. It seems as though God has abandoned his people to suffering and to the mockery of their enemies. As we see time and time again, Israel had no qualms about letting God know when she felt God was not holding up his end of the covenant. Yet as angry, disappointed and disillusioned as Israel sometimes was with her God, she never ceased speaking to God. As hard as it was for Israel to believe in God’s promises, it was harder simply to dismiss them. Israel knew that her ancestors lived for four hundred years as slaves in Egypt crying out for salvation before God sent Moses to deliver them. Israel knew that nearly all of those ancestors died on the long trek through the wilderness without seeing the Promised Land. Israel knew that in the past her ancestors had had to wait for God’s salvation. Why should things be any different now? With this knowledge and experience in her memory Israel cries out in the refrain found throughout this psalm, “Restore us, O God, let they face shine, that we may be saved!” vss. 3; 7 and 19.
In a culture that rewards speed, efficiency and instant satisfaction, the virtues of patience and persistence have little place. Praying to a God who acts in his own good time and for whom a thousand years is but a day has little appeal in the world of Burger King where you can have it your way right now. The Psalms remind us, however, that there is value in waiting. It is not just wasted time. Waiting gives us time to consider and contemplate that for which we pray. Those who practice prayer patiently and consistently know that one’s desires are transformed in the process. In the discipline of persistent and constant prayer, longings and desires are purified. We often discover in the process that what we thought we wanted, longed for and desired is not what we truly needed. By the time we recognize God’s answer to our prayer, our prayer has changed-and so have we. Waiting is perhaps the most important dimension of prayer.
As always, I urge you to read Psalm 80 in its entirety.
You might want to refresh your recollection concerning Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians. To that end, I refer you to the Summary Article by Mary Hinkle Shore, Associate Professor of New Testament at Luther Seminary, St. Paul, M.N. on enterthebible.org.
Our reading for Sunday is a snippet from Paul’s greeting to the church in Corinth. Paul alludes herein to the matters to be dealt with in the body of his letter, namely, “knowledge,” “eloquence,” “spiritual gifts,” and “the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ” at the “Day of our Lord Jesus Christ.” Of particular importance for the dawning of this Advent season is the promise of Christ to “sustain” us to the end. Vs. 8. Endurance is and always has been a key New Testament virtue. As I have said before, I do not believe there ever was a “crisis” in the early church prompted by the “delay of the second coming” (sometimes called “the Parousia”). I am convinced that the church understood from the witness of Jesus himself that the kingdom of God had come with power and glory in the cross and resurrection-but that in a sinful world the kingdom necessarily takes the shape of the cross. Though longed for, the consummation of the kingdom was not expected momentarily and the fact that it did not so occur did not occasion any “crisis of faith.” The God and Father of Jesus Christ was the God who sojourned with the patriarchs through their many years as foreigners in the Promised Land; the God who waited four hundred years before answering the cries of his enslaved people in Israel; the God who sat for seventy years in exile with his people and who sent his Son in the fullness of time. Patient longing has been part of the discipleship package from the start. It was not invented by the church to save its disillusioned members from their dashed hopes.
That means, of course, that disciples of Jesus must reconcile themselves to not knowing what time it is. The end (in the sense of Jesus becoming all in all) might come tomorrow. Yet again, it might not come for several more millennia. For all we know, tomorrow’s seminaries might include courses in space travel for pastoral leaders called to churches established at human colonies in far off star systems. Like the children of Israel in the wilderness, we do not know how long it will take for us to arrive at our destination, what the road ahead will look like or how we will know when we have arrived. Only patient, hopeful and confident trust in our Shepherd, the Lord Jesus Christ, can sustain us on this journey.
The language employed by Jesus in our reading is similar to prophetic judgment and apocalyptic speech employed in the Hebrew Scriptures. As such, it is “more than metaphorical, less than literal.” Hooker, Morna D., The Gospel According to Saint Mark, Black’s New Testament Commentaries, Vol. 2 (c. 1991 by Morna D. Hooker, pub. by A&C Black, Limited) p. 319. The imagery suggests cosmic dissolution. The coming of the Son of Man in glory means the end of the world as we know it.
That said, I believe Mark is doing something unique with this section of his gospel. Jesus has said before that “this generation will not pass away before these things take place.” Vs. 30. See also Mark 9:1. So the question is, what “things” is Jesus talking about? Note well that Jesus tells his disciples no less than three times to “watch.” Vss. 33-37. As we will see, they famously fail to stay awake and watch three times. Mark 14:32-42. At Jesus’ crucifixion, “there was darkness over the whole land until the 9th hour.” Mark 15:33. Jesus is acknowledged (albeit mockingly) as Messiah while hanging on the cross and confessed as Son of God at his death. Mark 15:21-39. Jesus, identified in the first chapter of Mark as “Messiah” and “Son of God” (Mark 1:1), is so glorified in his crucifixion-a strange sort of glory. Do these words of Jesus from our gospel lesson pertain to some cosmic event in the distant future? Or do they refer to Jesus’ impending crucifixion? Is the cross for Mark the end of the world?
I suspect that this is a matter of both/and rather than strictly either/or. What happened with Jesus did indeed initiate the dissolution of the cosmos. Evidence of dissolution is everywhere. Nonetheless, if the sky is falling it can only mean that God is replacing it with a new heaven and a new earth. The end of the world is therefore the revealing of God’s kingdom, which now is hidden under the form of the cross. The end of the world is plainly visible for all who are watching for it. I concur therefore with Professor Cranfield who has this to say:
“If we realize that the Incarnation-Crucifixion-Resurrection-and Ascension, on the one hand, and the Parousia, on the other, belong essentially together and are in a real sense one Event, one divine Act, being held apart only by the mercy of God who desires to give men opportunity for faith and repentance, then we can see that in a very real sense the latter is always imminent now that the former has happened. It was, and still is, true to say that the Parousia is at hand-and indeed this, so far from being an embarrassing mistake on the part either of Jesus or of the early Church, is an essential part of the Church’s faith. Ever since the Incarnation men have been living in the last days.” Cranfield, C.E.B., The Gospel According to Mark, The Cambridge Greek Testament Commentary (c. 1959 Cambridge University Press) p. 408.
Though Cranfield employs concepts that are far outside the theological outlook of Mark’s gospel, I believe that his conclusion is nonetheless sound. For Mark, the new age was inaugurated by Jesus in the midst of the old. The cosmic events surrounding the crucifixion are of one piece with the final convulsion in which the old age withers before the advent of the new.
This is a timely word for all who experience dissolution, whether it be the dissolution of the America they once knew, the dissolution of a marriage, the dissolution of a mind into dementia or the dissolution of a church. Jesus does not soft peddle the reality of death in all its aspects. The creation is subject to death and the convulsions of its death throes are everywhere. But these same convulsions, for those who are attentive, are birth pangs of something new. That is the good news in this lesson.
Calling a thing what it actually is; a poem by Anne Waldman; and the lessons for Sunday, October 29th
Prayer of the Day: Almighty God, gracious Lord, we thank you that your Holy Spirit renews the church in every age. Pour out your Holy Spirit on your faithful people. Keep them steadfast in your word, protect and comfort them in times of trial, defend them against all enemies of the gospel, and bestow on the church your saving peace, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.
“A theology of the cross calls the thing what it actually is.” Martin Luther, Heidelberg Disputation, Art. 21.
This week we saw a decorated four-star general with a distinguished record of service to his country disgrace himself and his uniform by trying to explain away the mad ramblings of an emotionally unstable president with rank lies about an elected member of the house of representatives. In response to queries about that by an incredulous press, we heard the president’s press secretary tell reporters that military leaders are not to be questioned. Meanwhile, a state university in Florida hosted a white supremacist whose demagoguery incited the same kind of violence against protesters that occurred at his appearance in Charlottesville last summer, thankfully without the same tragic results. Am I the only one who finds it passing strange that white supremacist Richard Spencer is given a platform to preach his racist idiocy at an expense to the taxpayers of over half a million dollars while reporters asking questions about the public statement of a military leader are told to shut up? Are we still in the United States of America?
More disturbing than the current administration’s shredding of the constitution, a university’s dignifying racist yammering and the absolute disregard for truth that has washed like tsunami over our nation is the religious underpinning for all this so generously provided by the evangelical wing of American religion. The president’s equivocation (to put it charitably) on the violence in Charlottesville resulted in so many resignations from his Strategic and Policy Forum and Manufacturing Jobs Initiative councils that he was forced to disband both. But labeling neo Nazis and clansmen “fine people” was not enough to tickle the gag reflexes of Mr. Trump’s religious advisory council. Unlike the captains of industry, these religious figures didn’t feel that a little racism (to say nothing of sexual predatory conduct) is anything over which to become upset. If God has placed the Donald in the White House (and yes, that’s what these folks are saying), then opposing the Donald is opposing God.
All of this might be laughable-except that God’s presidential appointee is in the process of deporting children to countries where they have never lived, don’t speak the language and have no cultural or even family ties. We might just shake our heads, sigh and go on with our business-except that this president is bringing us closer every day to an unwinnable military conflict that could well bring ours and everyone else’s business to an abrupt end. We might shrug our shoulders and take the attitude that life goes on-except it might not and surely will not for the growing number of victims of hate crimes incited by Trumpist dog whistling. We might dismiss idiots like Richard Spencer as harmless clowns dancing around outside the margins of respectable society, spewing their venom but harming no one. But Mr. Spencer is not muttering his malarkey into a beer mug at a dark pub in the hearing only of some unfortunate bartender, where ten years ago we would have expected to find such sorry specimens of humanity. Instead, he is speaking at publicly funded universities and even landing interviews with NPR. Overt racism, once unthinkable in polite society, is becoming as American as apple pie-again.
“The truth will make you free” Jesus declares in this Sunday’s Reformation gospel. The sad corollary is that lies imprison us. We are currently enslaved by a congress that has been lying to itself and to us about the obvious fact that we have managed to elect a deeply paranoid, narcissistic and delusional man to the highest office in the land and armed him with the deadliest arsenal on the planet. We are being lied to by well-meaning leaders who suggest that, if we just learn to talk nice to each other, we can come together and solve the country’s problems-except that inviting people of color to discuss commonalities with those who want to lynch them is a mighty big ask. Moreover, anyone who thinks that welcoming Spencer and his hoards into the political mainstream will domesticate them would do well to remember the Weimar Republic’s last prime minister, Paul von Hindenburg, who named Adolf Hitler chancellor of the republic in hopes that the responsibilities of governing would curb his fanaticism. We are being lied to by the church and not only that heretical fragment ensconced in the Trump White House. We are also being lied to by a mainline church that, in my view, has failed to recognize and name the evil we face for what it is-a nationalistic, militaristic and racist revival of xenophobic populism that is taking root not only in the United States but in democracies everywhere. Let us be clear: this has nothing to do with disputes over politics, economics and social policies about which reasonable persons of good will might well disagree. Toning down the rhetoric alone will not bring us back to civility and peace. The election of 2016 has ignited a tidal wave of racist, misogynist, xenophobic and homophobic hate that respects neither law nor policy. This irrational madness has placed the mad man in the White House. That is the hard truth that needs to be spoken.
Five hundred years ago Martin Luther posted ninety-five theses on the door of the church in Wittenberg for discussion and debate with this preface: “Out of love for the truth.” His was a challenge to the church of his day to engage in frank and fearless discussion about what he saw to be the blinding lies holding captive the people of God. If we want to be faithful to the reformation tradition, I believe we need to hear that call today. I think Martin is calling us to name truthfully the evil confronting us for what it is. Moreover, we (especially those of us in the white, straight, male category) need to take a careful inventory of the ways in which we have contributed to the making of the Trump presidency by failing to recognize and confront the systemic oppression that has always existed at all levels of government, education and the work place. Donald Trump did not invent racism, sexism or homophobia. He only exploited it and made us painfully aware of a truth we have been reluctant to see. That might well be the one positive accomplishment of his presidency. As important as getting the mad man out of the White House surely is, getting the madness of entrenched bigotry out of our institutions and our hearts is by far the more daunting task. We desperately need bishops, theologians and pastoral leaders with courage to speak difficult truths to us and lead us on the hard journey of repentance and faith. However painful that path might be, it is the way to which Jesus calls us and the only way to freedom.
Here is a poem by Anne Waldman about the inbreaking of truth.
To the Censorious Ones
(Jesse Helms & others…)
I’m coming up out of the tomb, Men of War
Just when you thought you had me down, in place, hidden
I’m coming up now
Can you feel the ground rumble under your feet?
It’s breaking apart, it’s turning over, it’s pushing up
It’s thrusting into your point of view, your private property
O Men of War, Censorious Ones!
get ready big boys get ready
I’m coming up now
I’m coming up with all that was hidden
Get ready, Big Boys, get ready
I’m coming up with all you wanted buried,
All the hermetic texts with stories in them of hot & dangerous women
Women with lascivious tongues, sharp eyes & claws
I’ve been working out, my muscles are strong
I’m pushing up the earth with all you try to censor
All the iconoclasm & bravado you scorn
All the taunts against your banner & salute
I’m coming up from Hell with all you ever suppressed
All the dark fantasies, all the dregs are coming back
I’m leading them back up now
They’re going to bark & scoff & rage & bite
I’m opening the box
Source: In the Room of Never Grieve: New and Selected Poems, 1985-2003, (c. 2003 by Anne Waldman, pub. by Coffee House Press). Anne Waldman was born 1945 in Millville, New Jersey, but grew up in Manhattan. She was heavily influenced by Beat poets such as Allen Ginsberg and Gertrude Stein. She was educated at Bennington College in Vermont. Waldman has received honorary grants from the Foundation for Contemporary Performance Arts, the Poetry Foundation, and the National Endowment for the Arts. She co-founded the Poetry Is News collective poet Ammiel Alcalay in 2002. You can find out more about Anne Waldman and sample more of her poetry at the Poetry Foundation website.
For a brief but excellent summary of the Book of Jeremiah see the article by Terence E. Fretheim, Elva B. Lovell Professor of Old Testament at enterthebible.org.
Recall that Jeremiah prophesied immediately before and for some time after the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple by the Babylonians in 587 B.C.E. The new covenant of which Jeremiah speaks does not differ formally from the old. The “law” or “Torah” which God promises to write upon the hearts of God’s people is the law delivered to Israel at Sinai. The problem is not with the law but with the people who failed to internalize it and therefore observed it only in the breech. For example, during the reign of Judah’s last king, Zedekiah, the Babylonian armies advanced and captured all but two of Judah’s fortified cities. Jeremiah 34:7. Hoping to placate God and induce the Lord to save Judah from conquest, Zedekiah persuaded the people to do away with a longstanding practice of enslaving their impoverished fellow Hebrews beyond the six year limit on servitude established under Torah (Exodus 21:2-6). See Jeremiah 34:6-10. Shortly thereafter, Hophra, Pharaoh of Egypt, marched north to attack the Babylonian forces in Palestine. Babylon was forced to raise the siege against Jerusalem and draw its troops down to repel the Egyptian forces. When it seemed as though the Babylonian threat had receded, Zedekiah revoked the decree freeing the slaves and reinstated the lawless practice of indefinite servitude. Jeremiah 34:11. Jeremiah warned Zedekiah that this blatant act of hypocrisy would not go unpunished, that the Babylonian army would return and that there would be no escape from destruction. Jeremiah 34:17-22.
This particular oracle in Sunday’s lesson is regarded by most scholars as coming from Jeremiah’s post 587 prophesies. Jerusalem was in ruins and a substantial part of the population had been deported to Babylon (modern day Iraq). There seemed to be no future for Judah. Yet here Jeremiah, the very prophet who refused to offer Judah’s leaders even a sliver of hope for deliverance from Babylon, now speaks to the sorry remnant of the people about a new beginning. Such words could not be heard by Judah before the destruction of Jerusalem because her leaders were too intent on preserving the old covenant that had been irretrievably broken. Judah was hoping that salvation would come in the form of a Babylonian defeat, that somehow the line of David would be preserved, that the Holy City and the temple of Solomon would be spared from destruction. But that would not have been salvation. For a nation that had so thoroughly strayed from her covenant with her God, salvation for her institutions would only have enabled her to stray further. A miraculous deliverance from Babylon would have saved Judah’s national independence, her architectural treasures and her royal lineage. But it would have damned her soul. Salvation lay not in preserving Judah and her institutions, but in the new heart God would form in his people after all these things had been taken away. Judah would never again be the glorious nation she was; but through the new covenant Jeremiah promises, Judah would become precisely the nation God needed.
Jeremiah has been dubbed the prophet of doom. Yet the more I read him, the more convinced I am that he has gotten a bum rap. Jeremiah does have good news for his people. The problem, though, is that the people are not ready to hear it. They cannot see the glorious future God is offering them because they are fixated on preserving the past. As far as they are concerned, there can be no future other than a return to the past. A future without the throne of David, the temple in Jerusalem and the land of Israel is no future at all. Loss of these three pillars of Judah’s identity constituted only the end. The people of Judah had neither the language nor the conceptual tools to imagine life beyond that end. Their minds could not process the vision of a radically new existence as God’s people under a radically new covenant.
I am convinced that our protestant churches in the United States suffer from the same malady that affected the people of Judah in Jeremiah’s time. God has moved beyond the past. Our church is still hopelessly stuck in it. I have encountered Jeremiah’s dilemma over and over again when trying to speak with church leaders about the promise of God’s future for the church in America. I always preface my remarks with what has become for me a mantra: “These are exciting days in which to be the church.” Yet I find that when I share that excitement, the response often ranges from sadness, to fear, to outright rage. The good news is heard as bad. Very often I find that when congregations say they want to grow, thrive and do new ministries, what they are really seeking is some way to rebuild the glories of the past. They want the pews filled again, a robust Sunday school and a church basement filled with teenagers playing twister. When I try to tell them that the church they are seeking is dead and never coming back-they are far too fearful/sad/angry to hear the good news, namely, that God has something better in mind. What is true of congregations individually is just as true of my denomination as a whole. Our leaders’ response to several years of decline and loss of support? A capital fund drive. If successful this effort, along with the assets collected from more and more closing congregations, will keep the denominational machinery going long after our congregations are nearly depopulated!
To be fair, this is not altogether about self-preservation. My congregation does some fine ministry in our community that would be missed should the church fold. So also, my denomination’s institutions do many important things for the whole of society. They feed the hungry; shelter the homeless; care for refugees; provide disaster relief; educate and advocate for justice and peace. The world will be decidedly poorer in the event my church’s corporate ministries cease to exist. Yet I must emphasize that one very important reason for their present peril is our failure to make our congregations communities capable of forming saints with hearts for the hungry, poor, oppressed and homeless. Instead of welcoming the stranger into our midst, we have created professional agencies to “address their needs.” We have cultivated a “check book charity” that allows congregations to buy off their “social consciences” without ever having to get their hands dirty. I think that John Tetzel would have approved the logic at work here. Indulgences financing social programs rather than building projects might be more palatable to our progressive tastes. But at the end of the day, the result is the same. Sanctification for sale. Genuine gospel mission cannot long maintain itself on such a flimsy foundation.
As Jeremiah saw it, the kingdom of David was beyond redemption. The faithlessness of the people could not be addressed by changing or reforming Judah’s existing institutions. Change must come at the very deepest level: within the heart. Salvation is still possible for Judah, but it lies on the far side of judgment. The good news has to be heard as bad news before it can be received as good. So, too, I often wonder whether Jesus’ promise that whoever loses life for the sake of the gospel will find it sounds like unmitigated bad news because we can’t quite get over the “loss” piece. We lack the capacity to imagine church without our individual congregations and their sanctuaries, seminaries, professional clergy and the recognition we have known in society at large. It is for that reason I continue to hold up Church of the Sojourners, Reba Place Fellowship and Koinonia Farm as alternatives to what we have come to understand as church. I don’t suggest that these communities can be emulated by all our congregations or that they provide us with any sort of blueprint for tomorrow’s church. They do, however, challenge our assumptions about what it means to be church in the 21st Century and what is required to be faithful disciples of Jesus and, perhaps just as importantly, what is not. Like Jesus’ parables, these communities stimulate our imaginations and give us concrete images with which to envision God’s future.
The promise “I will be their God and they shall be my people” encapsulates at the deepest level God’s final (eschatological) intent for humanity. Vs. 33. The same refrain echoes throughout the book of the prophet Ezekiel (Ezekiel 11:20; Ezekiel 14:11; Ezekiel 36:28) and appears again in the concluding chapters of Revelation. Revelation 21:1-4. Under this new covenant, it will no longer be necessary to instruct people in Torah because Torah, the very shape of obedience to God, will be wholly internalized. If you ask me what such a community looks like, I cite once again the powerful example of the Amish community following the Nickel Mine tragedy. In extending forgiveness to the murderer of their children and offering support to his family, the Amish demonstrated to a sick, violent and gun wielding culture what the kingdom of Christ looks like. This response speaks louder than all the preachy-screechy moralistic social statements ever issued by all the rest of us more mainline, official and established churches. Here, for a brief instant, it was possible to see at work hearts upon which God’s words have been inscribed.
This psalm is associated with the protestant Reformation generally and Martin Luther’s hymn, “A Mighty Fortress is our God” in particular. Structurally, the hymn is made up of three sections punctuated twice by the refrain: “The Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our refuge/fortress.” Vss 7 & 11. Each section is followed with the term “selah.” This word is found throughout the Psalms and also in the book of Habakkuk (Habakkuk 3:3; Habakkuk 3:9; Habakkuk 3:13). It is most likely an instruction to musicians or worship leaders for use in liturgical performances. The exact meaning has been debated among rabbinic scholars since the Hebrew Scriptures were translated into Greek around 270 B.C.E. This suggests that whatever function the term served had ceased even then.
In the first section the psalmist declares confidence in God’s protection in the midst of an unstable world. Earthquakes, storms and floods were terrifying events often attributed to angry deities. The psalmist does not speculate on causation here, but confidently asserts that the God of Jacob can be trusted to provide security and protection even in the midst of these frightening natural phenomena.
The psalmist turns his/her attention in the second section to the city of Jerusalem which, though not mentioned by name, can hardly be any other than the “city of God,” “the holy habitation of the Most High.” Vs. 4. The “river” that makes glad the city of God might be the Gihon Spring, the main source of water for ancient Jerusalem. It was this water source that made human settlement there possible. The Gihon was used not only for drinking water, but also for irrigation of gardens in the adjacent Kidron Valley which, in turn, was a source of food for the city. Of course, the prophet Ezekiel relates a vision in which a miraculous river flows out of the restored temple in Jerusalem to give life to desert areas in Palestine. Ezekiel 47:1-14. Similarly, John of Patmos describes “a river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the street of the city; also, on either side of the river, the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, yielding its fruit each month; and the leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations.” Revelation 22: 1-2. God’s presence in the midst of the city recalls the promise of Jeremiah that “I will be their God and they will be my people.” Jeremiah 31:33.
As a relatively small nation existing in a violent and dangerous geopolitical neighborhood, Israel was no stranger to “raging” nations and unstable kingdoms. Vs. 6. But the psalmist will not be rattled by these dangers. S/he knows that the Holy City is under the protection of the Holy One of Israel. It is not the nations or their rulers who determine the course of history. The God of Jacob is the one whose voice “melts” the earth. So Isaiah would try in vain to convince King Ahaz to be still and wait for God’s salvation from his enemies rather than allying himself with the empire of Assyria-which would be his nation’s undoing. Isaiah 7:1-8:8.
In the third section, the focus is upon the violent geopolitical scene. The God of Israel is no friend of war. To the contrary, “he makes wars to cease to the end of the earth.” Vs. 9. Moreover, he destroys the weapons of war. He does not call upon Israel to deal violently with the nations of the earth. The psalmist assures us that God can handle that job without us. God says instead, “Be still and know that I am God.” Vs. 10. When confronted with violent enemies (as Israel frequently was), the people are called upon to put their trust in the God of Jacob who is the one and only reliable refuge. In a culture indoctrinated with the belief that “the only way to stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun,” the contrary witness of this ancient psalm is critical.
Paul’s letter to the Romans is the only one in which he makes a sustained theological argument from start to finish. For that reason alone, it is impossible to interpret any single passage in isolation from the whole work. As I have said in prior posts, I believe that Paul’s primary concern is expressed in Romans 9-11. In that section, Paul discusses the destiny of Israel in God’s saving work through Jesus Christ. It is not Paul’s intent to discredit his people or their faith. Rather, he is making the argument that through Jesus the covenant promises formerly extended exclusively to Israel are now offered to the gentiles as well. Though some in Israel (most as it ultimately turned out) do not accept Jesus as messiah, it does not follow that God has rejected Israel. “For the gifts and the call of God are irrevocable.” Romans 11:29. Paul points out that Israel’s rejection of Jesus as Messiah has occasioned the inclusion of the gentiles into the covenant promises. “A hardening,” says Paul, “has come over part of Israel until the full number of the gentiles come in.” Romans 11:25. I must confess that I don’t quite understand how Israel’s rejection of Jesus as messiah makes it any easier for the gentiles to believe. Nevertheless, Paul sees some connection here and, in any event, Israel’s salvation (which is assured) is inextricably bound up with the salvation of the gentiles. According to Paul, Israel and the church are both essential players in God’s redemptive purpose for creation.
With all of this in mind, let’s turn to our lesson for Sunday. Paul points out that “the law” speaks to those under the law so that every mouth will be stopped and the whole world held accountable to God. Vs. 19. Here it is essential to distinguish between “Torah” and “law” as Paul uses it. Torah was always understood and accepted by Israel as a gift. The commandments, even those governing the smallest details of dietary and hygienic practice, were not intended to be oppressive and controlling. They were designed to make every aspect of living, however humble and mundane, a reminder of the covenant through which Israel was privileged to be joined with her God. As such, observance of Torah was a joy, not a burden.
Nevertheless, when observance of Torah is misconstrued and understood not as a gift, but rather a means or method of pleasing God or winning God’s favor, it becomes a burden. The focus is no longer on God’s grace in giving the Torah, but upon my success in keeping it. When that happens, the gift of Torah becomes the curse of “law.” Law always accuses. Think about it: no matter how well you do on the exam, isn’t it usually the case that you come away feeling that you could have done just a little better? Try as we do to be good parents, I have never met one that didn’t feel he or she failed his or her children in some respect. How can you ever be sure that you have done enough? The fear of people in Luther’s day was that God would not be satisfied with their repentance, their confession of sin and their efforts to amend their lives. In a secular culture such as ours, we might not fear eternal damnation quite so much. But we find ourselves enslaved nonetheless to our fears of social rejection and anxiety over failure to meet societal standards of beauty and success. That is why we have young girls starving themselves to death because they cannot measure up to what teen magazines tell them is beautiful. It is also why men become depressed, violent and prone to addiction during prolonged periods of unemployment-a real man earns his own living and pays his own way. We may be a good deal less religious than we were in Luther’s day, but we are no less in bondage to “law.”
Verse 21 contains one of the most critical “buts” in the Bible. “But now,” Paul says, “the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law…” So just as all are judged guilty under the law, so all are justified by God through Jesus Christ as a gift. Henceforth, being right with God is no longer a goal to be achieved through obedience to rules of one kind or another. It is a gift promised by God. Our obedience is no longer an onerous effort to win God’s favor but a thankful response to the favor God freely gives us. That is as true for Jews as it is for Gentiles as Paul will go on to point out in Romans 4. Abraham, after all, was called and responded in faith while he was still essentially a gentile, being uncircumcised and without the Law of Moses. Jews are therefore children of promise who owe their status as God’s people to God’s free election. They did not earn their covenant status through obedience to the law and therefore have no grounds to exclude the gentiles from God’s call to them through Jesus into that same covenant relationship. Importantly, Paul makes the converse argument in Romans 9-11, namely, that gentiles are in no position to judge or exclude the Jews from covenant grace, not even those who do not believe in Jesus. Their status as covenant people does not rest on their obedience or disobedience, but on God’s irrevocable call.
Our reading is part of a much larger exchange beginning at John 7:1 where Jesus declines his brothers’ invitation to accompany them to the Feast of Tabernacles in Jerusalem, but later comes on his own slipping into Jerusalem unnoticed. John 7:1-13. In the midst of the feast, Jesus goes up to the Temple and begins teaching the people. At first, the people do not seem to recognize Jesus. They can see that he is a common person of the type usually untrained in the finer points of Torah. But there is no question that Jesus is, in fact, learned in the law and they marvel at his teaching. When it becomes clear that this strange man is none other than Jesus of Nazareth, the chief priests send officers to arrest him. But instead of bringing Jesus in and booking him, they return amazed and overawed by what they have heard. Exasperated, the chief priests ask the officers why they have not arrested Jesus as ordered. They can only reply, “No one ever spoke like this man!” John 7:46. The chief priests then vilify the officers and the crowds, cursing them for their ignorance of the law. But Nicodemus, a member of the council, cautions the chief priests against pre-judging Jesus’ case before hearing him-only to be rebuffed. (We meet Nicodemus early on in John’s gospel at chapter 3 when he comes to see Jesus under cover of darkness. John 3:1-21. We will meet Nicodemus again following Jesus’ crucifixion as he comes with Joseph of Arimathea to bury the body of Jesus. John 19:38-42).
The narrative is interrupted by the story of the woman caught in adultery, a story that probably was not originally part of John’s gospel. John 8:1-11. Then Jesus’ discourse begun at the last day of the feast picks up where it left off in John 7:37 ff. Though the opposition continues, Jesus is gaining some support. We read that as he spoke, many believed in him. John 8:30. But success is short lived. Our reading picks up just where Jesus turns his focus upon these new believing supporters and tells them, “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.” Vss. 31-33. Clearly, this remark rubbed them the wrong way. “Just what do you mean by that? We are Abraham’s descendants and we have never been in bondage to anyone. How can you promise to set us free?” Vs. 33. Clearly, Jesus’ newfound supporters are experiencing a “senior moment.” Have they really forgotten the four hundred years their ancestors spent as slaves in Egypt? Have the forgotten the Babylonian Exile? Israel has in fact known bondage under the whip of foreign masters and beneath the tyranny of many of her own leaders. But the greatest tyrant is not Egypt or Babylonia or Rome. The greatest bondage is slavery to sin.
John speaks of sin almost exclusively in connection with each person’s response to Jesus. It is not that people are sinless before they encounter Jesus. Rather, their encounter with Jesus reveals their sin and confronts them with the choice of remaining in sin or being set free from sin. It is precisely because Jesus’ opponents both see and claim to understand him that their guilt is established. John 9:39-41. To know and be set free by the truth is to know Jesus. This knowledge does not consist of propositions about Jesus. To know the truth about Jesus is to know Jesus-just as you know a loved one. That sort of knowledge requires the cultivation of a relationship that grows over time and, as all of us who experience friendship know, is never fully complete. We are always learning more about the people we love and think we know so well. How much more so with Jesus, whose life is the eternal life of the Father?
I believe much of the membership loss among American mainline protestant churches may be a direct result of our misunderstanding of what it means to know and to teach the truth. We have modeled our Christian education programs along the lines of public schools. Sunday school involved teaching kids stories and rudimentary doctrines about Jesus. That, however, is not how Jesus taught his disciples. Rather than inviting them to come to his seminars, Jesus called people to become fishers for people. He taught them by involving them in his ministry, sharing his meals with them and taking them with him on the road. By contrast, we confirm kids in the spring time (when graduation commencements occur) and very often figure that we have done our job. These kids have been taught the truth and when they are old enough, we can include them in the church’s ministry. Trouble is, when that time finally comes, they are already long gone. And why not? They got whatever truth they needed to get in the system. The rest is just a refresher course and who needs one of those every single week?
In sum, we have not done a very good job of teaching people who have come through our congregations that discipleship, not membership is the end point; that growing intimacy with Jesus, not just a boat load of facts about him is what constitutes true discipleship. Perhaps the next reformation can address this shortcoming.
FIFTH SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST
PRAYER OF THE DAY: You are great, O God, and greatly to be praised. You have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you. Grant that we may believe in you, call upon you, know you, and serve you, through your Son, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.
“Return to your stronghold, O prisoners of hope.” Zechariah 9:12
Hope is powerful. It can inspire selfless acts of heroism. It can empower an oppressed people to endure centuries of persecution. Hope can sustain resistance to tyranny and ignite revolutionary change. Often the most slender and fragile hope for a better tomorrow is enough to see us through the darkest of days. It does seem to me that we are held prisoner by hope. Hope appears to be an indispensible element of human existence. It’s what keeps us going. It is as difficult to lose all hope as it is to will oneself to stop breathing. Even those who take their own lives are driven by the desperate hope of finally escaping an existence too painful to endure. And that, of course, brings us to the dark side of hope. Hope can be tragically misplaced.
In last week’s lesson from Jeremiah, the people of Judah were led by the false prophet Hananiah to place their hope in his prediction of Babylon’s imminent collapse. So, too, it seems was the king and his counselors who shaped their foreign policy on the basis of this lie and engineered a revolt against Babylonian domination. Jeremiah’s largely ignored warning that such folly would lead to catastrophic destruction for Judah came true with a vengeance. Babylon crushed the revolt. Judah lost her land, her temple and the royal line of David. Such are the consequences of misplaced hope.
One needs look no further than the field of medicine to find examples of misplaced hope. Of course, I am no enemy of medicine or medical progress. Some members of my family and many of my friends would likely have died in childhood if they had lived just a century ago. Thanks to modern medical advances, they are living full and active lives today. I am glad that medical science is pushing against the frontiers of human knowledge to find cures for various diseases, particularly those that strike during childhood. But medicine has limits that hope sometimes refuses to acknowledge. It is easy to forget that medicine is as much art as science, and that the human body is enormously complex. In spite of its impressive advances, medicine does not have close to all the answers for what ails us. When I was practicing law, a significant portion of my practice involved defending doctors, nurses and hospitals against malpractice claims. While medical malpractice does in fact occur with disturbing frequency, I can say that many such claims arise from unrealistic expectations of modern medicine and the caregivers who practice it. At the end of the day, doctors are only human. Medical knowledge is incomplete. Sometimes people are beyond medical help and cannot be “fixed.” Human beings are mortal-and that is perhaps the greatest sticking point of all. Medicine can’t save us from death; but obvious as this raw fact surely is, that doesn’t make it any easier to accept.
In a recent article of the Daily Express, Jon Austin reports on the work of Dr. Aubrey de Grey, a physician who has dedicated his work to the quest for eternal life. Dr. De Grey believes people who have already been born could live for ten centuries as beneficiaries of ongoing research into “repairing the effects of ageing.” He hopes ultimately to create preventative treatments enabling humans to re-repair themselves on a regular basis and so live as long as 1,000 years or possibly even forever. I hasten to add that Mr. Austin has made a name for himself covering all manner of conspiracy theories and alleged government cover-ups of UFO landings and sightings. So I am inclined to take this article with a very large grain of salt. Nonetheless, that it finds its way into public media at all suggests to me that it speaks to a longing we find hard to suppress. The notion that medical science might possibly lead us to that illusive fountain of youth makes us absolutely giddy.
Can genetic engineering extend our lives indefinitely? I rather doubt it. But not being a scientist myself, I can’t speak authoritatively on that question. What I can say with certainty is that the desire to extend one’s life indefinitely is a selfish, narcissistic, egotistical quest. It reflects a stubborn refusal to accept with gratitude the time one has been given on this planet and to graciously step aside and make room for the next generation. The utter selfishness of pursuing human immortality becomes clear when one considers that it would be entirely unsustainable unless we all decided to stop reproducing or restricted life extending treatments to an elite few. This perverse preoccupation also goes a long way toward explaining why our country’s health care system is grotesquely skewed toward providing life extending care for us oldsters while neglecting large sections of our population consisting of children and young families. The drive for immortality represents an arrogant promethean effort to put the brakes on history/evolution and elevate the status quo to a level of eternal significance. It is a refusal to let the universe progress beyond the eternal “me.”
The promise that “you shall not die, but become as God, knowing good and evil” is as old as human existence. We should not forget where it came from. Whether attainable or not, extending human life indefinitely is a false hope. Immortality can offer us only selfish misery and loneliness if it is an end in itself. St. Paul understood that well. That is why he insists that, in order to share in Christ’s eternal life, we must of necessity die. That is why Jesus tells us that only by losing our lives can we hope to gain them. Repentance is a kind of death that requires us to let go daily of past sins and false hopes. We are to practice repentance with such regularity that, when the day of death actually comes, it will be “just another day.” Rather than clinging tenaciously and futilely to life at all costs, we are invited to let our lives fall back into the hands of the One who gave them to us in the first place and who has the power to give them back to us once again, made new and reconciled.
Zechariah encourages Israel to “return to your stronghold.” That stronghold is the Lord, Israel’s covenant partner. God is where all genuine hope is finally anchored. It is within the covenant of baptism, within the community of saints under construction and within the disciplines of discipleship that we are formed through daily repentance and faith into genuinely human creatures capable of living joyfully, thankfully and obediently within the limits of our creaturely existence. Here’s a poem by Marge Piercy that speaks of a transformative life of repentance grounded in sober hope.
The hinge of the year
the great gates opening
and then slowly slowly
closing on us.
I always imagine those gates
hanging over the ocean
fiery over the stone grey
waters of evening.
We cast what we must
change about ourselves
onto the waters flowing
to the sea. The sins,
errors, bad habits, whatever
you call them, dissolve.
When I was little I cried
out I! I! I! I want, I want.
Older, I feel less important,
a worker bee in the hive
of history, miles of hard
labor to make my sweetness.
The gates are closing
The light is failing
I kneel before what I love
imploring that it may live.
So much breaks, wears
down, fails in us. We must
forgive our broken promises—
their sharp shards in our hands.
 Ne’ilah is a special Jewish prayer service that is held on Yom Kippur. It is the time when final prayers of repentance are recited at the closing of this most solemn of Jewish observances.
Source: The Crooked Inheritance, (c. 2006 by Marge Piercy, pub. by Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group). Marge Piercy was born in 1936 in Detroit, Michigan. She attended the University of Michigan and received her MA from Northwestern University. During the 1960s, Piercy was an organizer in Students for a Democratic Society (SDS). She was also heavily involved in opposition to the war in Vietnam. Piercy is a prolific writer having published seventeen books of poetry and several novels. You can learn more about Marge Piercy and sample more of her poetry at the Poetry Foundation website.
Zechariah is identified in the opening lines of the book bearing his name as son of Berechiah son of Iddo. Zechariah 1:1. His name means “The Lord is renowned.” He is identified, along with Haggai, as one of the prophets prophesying encouragement to the Jews newly returned from the Babylonian Exile. Ezra 5:1, Ezra 6:14. Such encouragement was sorely needed. Having left Babylon in high hopes of witnessing a miraculous recovery for their homeland, the people arrived to find only a ruined city and rubble where the temple of Solomon once stood. Conditions were daunting and soon the little settlement was reduced to subsistence living and concerned only with survival. This was hardly an ideal time to begin a stewardship campaign for a new sanctuary! Yet through his repeated proclamation of visions and oracles, Zechariah was able to assure Zerubbabel, the governor of Judah, and Joshua, the high priest, that together they could complete reconstruction of the temple in Jerusalem. Zechariah’s preaching must have been persuasive, for the temple was indeed rebuilt and dedicated around 516 B.C.E.
Sunday’s reading is familiar to us. All four gospels cite or allude to verse 9 in connection with Jesus’ triumphal procession into Jerusalem riding on the back of a donkey. Matthew 21:5; Mark 11:1-10; Luke 19:28-38; and John 12:14-15. Note the contrast: Zion’s king, though triumphant and victorious, comes riding upon a donkey; but the “war horse,” “chariot” and “battle bow” are destined to be cut off. Vss. 9-10. This king will command “peace” to the nations. Vs. 10. His weapon, his “bow,” “arrow” and “sword” is the people of Israel. Zechariah 9:13 (omitted in the lectionary reading). Through the faithful witness of the covenant people, the king prevails over his foes. This is another of many instances in the Hebrew Scriptures where Israel’s God forsakes war as the means for saving and liberating his people. So, too, Jesus will forsake violence repeatedly in the gospels as the means for bringing about God’s reign.
“Blood of my covenant” is a conventional way of referring to the covenant relationship between Israel and her God. Vs. 11. That it was sealed with blood emphasizes the irrevocable nature of that relationship. “Prisoners of hope” is a difficult phrase and resort to the original Hebrew does not give us much further insight into its meaning. Vs. 12. Yet one might well describe both Israel and the church as “prisoners of hope.” Both communities were created by covenants established in the past, yet which also look to the future for their fulfilment. Hope is not a vague optimism that everything will finally work out in the end. It is shaped by promises of a new age, a new heaven and a new earth, resurrection and a new creation. It is fed by sacred narratives of God’s past acts of salvation and God’s steadfast faithfulness to us throughout history. We are in bondage to this hope that will not let us go.
This psalm is a hymn in acrostic form. Every verse begins with a successive letter of the Hebrew alphabet. Acrostic poems usually do not develop ideas but consist rather of loosely connected statements. The technique aids in memorization, but also conveys the message that the whole of the topic is being addressed “from A-Z.” Other psalms in the acrostic family are Psalm 119; Psalm 9; Psalm 10; Psalm 25; Psalm 34; Psalm 37; Psalm 111; and Psalm 112.
As always, I encourage you to read Psalm 145 in its entirety. The verses making up our reading contain a refrain found throughout the Hebrew Scriptures: “The Lord is gracious and merciful; slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.” Vs. 8. See, e.g, Exodus 34:6; Numbers 14:18; Nehemiah 9:17; Jonah 4:2; and Psalm 103:8. This core confession belies the all too common belief on the part of ill-informed Christians that the God of the Hebrew Scriptures is a “God of wrath,” whereas the New Testament God is a kindly, old, overindulgent grandfather. God does not need Jesus to be gracious or the cross in order to forgive. It is rather because God is gracious that his Word became flesh and because God is infinitely forgiving that God’s Incarnate Word embraces with love those who would nail him to the cross.
All creation testifies to God’s grace and mercy through praise. This “all” includes God’s faithful people Israel as well as the natural world and its non-human creatures. Vss. 10-12. The term “kingdom” might better be translated “reign.” The psalmist is not speaking of something in the distant future and certainly does not refer to a place located “beyond the blue.” God reigns now, whether that reign is recognized and acknowledged or not. In talking about the nature of God’s reign, it might be helpful to reflect back on the reading from Zechariah and the humble king riding not a war horse, but a donkey. God does not rule the world in the way of all the tribes, kingdoms and empires that have drenched the earth in blood to establish their respective reigns.
Standing on its own, this little snippet from Romans is a bit confusing. So let’s give it some context. Paul has been discussing the role of the law and its relationship to sin. Law is binding only upon the living. For example, a person is bound to another in marriage for “as long as they both shall live.” But if one spouse dies, there is no longer any marriage and thus no legal obligation of faithfulness for the surviving spouse. So also a person baptized into Christ’s death is liberated from the law which attaches only to the living. The new person raised in Christ’s resurrection is, as we have said, a servant of God over whom sin has no power and the law no jurisdiction. Romans 7:1-6. The gospel is not about reforming sinners. It is not about teaching an old dog new tricks. The old dog must be taken out back and shot. What is raised up constitutes an entirely new creature.
Law, as we have said before, is given to defend us from ourselves. It serves as a protective hedge around covenant life, ensuring the proper worship of Israel’s God and the essential elements of human life, i.e., marriage, livelihood and sustenance. The law, however, must not be confused with the covenant itself. When the law is understood as a means of drawing near to God rather than as a gift designed to protect and nurture that nearness, it becomes just another occasion for sin. Using the law as a means for achieving right relationship with God is rather like trying to drive your car along a winding mountain road by keeping your eye fixed on the guard rail. In addition to losing sight of your destination, you practically ensure that you will eventually go off the road.
The law functions, then, to bring into focus the nature and depth of sin. On the one hand, the law paints a portrait of life as it ought to be in covenant with God. Yet it is precisely this portrait that illuminates my own life and the extent to which it fails to work itself out peaceably within that covenant relationship. To the extent that I see reflected in the law my own brokenness and despise it, I affirm the law’s judgment. So far, so good. The law works well as a diagnostic instrument, but it is not a cure for what ails me. When I try to use it as a cure, it only becomes increasingly clear that I am hopelessly in bondage to sin. Instead of a protective hedge, the law now becomes a ruthless master whose demands I can never satisfy. So too, my understanding of the God who gives the law becomes distorted.
“So I find it to be a law that when I want to do right, evil lies close at hand.” Vs. 21. Paul speaks from experience here. It was, after all, his zeal for the law that led Paul to persecute the early church and so the messiah he now serves. Similarly, it was the religious leaders of Israel who were seeking to uphold the law and put an end to blasphemy that brought Jesus before Pontius Pilate seeking the death sentence. For his part, Pilate was simply doing his job and trying to keep the peace when he had Jesus crucified. Jesus was not killed by notorious sinners, but by decent, law abiding citizens who were only trying to do the right thing. Sin twists the law as it does everything else to serve its own destructive ends. That is why the folks who never tire of warning us that unless we enshrine “Christian values” in the laws of our land, society will disintegrate. Society might well disintegrate, but anyone who thinks that laws, however “Christian” they might be, can prevent such catastrophe has never listened to Saint Paul.
“Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?” Vs. 24. That is finally the proper question. It is not a matter of what one believes or what one does. It is a matter of who one trusts. “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” Vs. 25. When one trusts Jesus enough to share his death through baptism, one shares also in Jesus’ resurrection. Care must be taken to avoid the misunderstanding of “trusting Jesus” as simply another work of the law. Such trust or faith is not a precondition for salvation from sin’s bondage. Rather, the proclamation that Jesus is trustworthy works the miracle of trust in our hearts. Because sin is an absence of trust, its power is broken when the heart begins to trust God once again. When the power of sin is broken, law is superfluous.
In its usual paternalistic concern for the simple and unlearned, the lectionary has excised Jesus’ culturally offensive and intolerant language from our readings. Specifically, we have been spared Jesus’ harsh pronouncement of judgment upon the cities of Chorazin, Bethsaida and Capernaum where he had performed miracles and works of power. Jesus even suggests that, had his works been performed in the proverbially wicked city of Sodom, that city would have repented and been spared. Matthew 11:20-24. As Professor Stanley Hauerwas points out, “Jesus’ pronouncement of judgment on the cities in which he performed deeds of power makes us, contemporary Christians, profoundly uncomfortable. We want a gospel of love that insures when everything is said and done that everyone and everything is going to be okay. But we are not okay. Like the cities of Israel, we have turned our existence as Christians into a status meant to protect us from recognizing the prophets who would point us to Jesus. Of course we do not like Jesus to pronounce judgment on the cities in which he performed deeds of power, because we do not want to recognize that we too are judged. But the gospel is judgment because otherwise it would not be good news. Only through judgment are we forced to discover forms of life that can free us from our enchantment with sin and death.” Hauerwas, Stanley, Matthew, Brozos Theological Commentary on the Bible (c. 2006 by Stanley Hauerwas, pub. by Brazos Press) p. 116.
The text begins with Jesus citing a child’s proverb: “We played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we wailed, and you did not mourn.” Vs. 17. Like spoiled children who cannot be induced to play at any game, the people of the three towns in which Jesus ministered remain unresponsive to God’s reign. First, they reject the ministry of John the Baptist. That is not surprising. John is an unsettling character. He lives off the bounty of the wilderness and so is impervious to the ups and downs of the economy. He has no stake in the social order and whatever entitlements it may provide. John’s very existence is a challenge to the status quo. His mere presence literally shouts that things need not be as they are. God has no need for children of Abraham, the line of David or the temple in Jerusalem. Fruits, not roots, are what God treasures. Small wonder the public at large dismisses John as a madman.
If John was unsettling, Jesus is downright threatening. Consider the “mighty works” Jesus has already done. He begins his healing ministry by touching a leper. Matthew 8:1-4. Note well that this touch was given before the leper had been healed. That should have rendered Jesus ritually unclean, but instead it cleanses the leper. Next, Jesus heals the servant of a centurion, a hated representative of the Roman Empire. To add insult to injury, Jesus remarks that the centurion’s faith outshines that of all Israel! Matthew 8:5-13. Jesus has the audacity to declare forgiveness to a man stricken with paralysis-presumably by God as punishment for his sins. Matthew 9:1-8. Then, to top it off, Jesus is found eating in the company of notorious sinners. Matthew 9:10-13. It might have been acceptable for Jesus to feed sinners at a shelter of some kind. Nobody would have objected to Jesus preaching to sinners. But to sit down and share meals with sinners who have not repented and have shown no inclination to clean up their acts-that is a bridge too far. Jesus seems to think there is no difference between sinners and the righteous, the clean and the unclean, the legal and the illegal. All those fine social distinctions that define us, tell us who we are and where we stand come apart in his presence. No wonder the good people of Chorazin, Bethsaida and Capernaum dismiss Jesus as dunk bohemian.
Both Jesus and John are written off with cheap ad hominem attacks. The critics cannot argue with the witness of John or the works of Jesus. So they resort to attacks on their characters. John is crazy. Jesus is a drunk. Their followers have been brainwashed by the media. The lectionary is likewise uncomfortable with Jesus. Rather than openly discrediting him, however, it simply edits the offensiveness out of him. But as Hauerwas observes, the good news is not good news until we are made to recognize that the status quo to which we so desperately cling is bad news.
Jesus concludes with a prayer thanking his heavenly Father for concealing the reality of God’s reign from the “wise and understanding” and for revealing it “to babes.” Vs. 25. This is not an attack on wisdom or understanding as such. Rather, it is an assault upon the intellectual energy we expend resisting the kingdom. We all know from our own experience what so often happens when you promote change, however modest, to a group of people set in their ways. Usually, you get all the reasons for why it cannot be done except the true reason, namely, that they don’t want it done. Adults will tell you that poverty, starvation and war are inevitable and give you an endless supply of well thought out reasons for why trying to change any of that is futile. A child will simply ask why we don’t stop fighting and start taking care of one another. It is not that the child is smarter than the adult. Clearly, s/he is not as well educated or knowledgeable. Yet precisely because the child lacks the conceptual tools of adulthood that enable us so effectively to lie to ourselves and rationalize our sin, the child manages to arrive at the truth from which we flee. The child knows what we steadfastly deny. Things don’t have to be the way they are.
Children are too young and inexperienced to understand that the status quo ensures them and their parents a comfortable lifestyle and security that few in the rest of the world can dream about. Children have not yet come to understand that the world is a shrinking pie and we all need to protect our slice. Children have not yet learned the importance of being white or straight or wealthy or physically attractive. A child must be educated to appreciate these distinctions and learn the importance of ensuring that they remain in place. In short, the child must be taught the fine art of self-deception. S/he must learn that the way things are is the way they must be if we are to maintain our way of life. It is not helpful for people like John and Jesus to confuse these little ones by declaring that things do not have to be as they are.
Clearly, the good news of Jesus Christ is not about tweaking the status quo to make it more humane. The good news is the reign of God that makes all things new (and of necessity breaks apart the old.) It introduces a new reality that lies at the core of both the Hebrew and New Testament scriptures. As observed by Walter Brueggemann, “At the root of reality is a limitless generosity that intends an extravagant abundance. This claim is exposited in Israel’s creation texts, sapiential traditions, and hymnic exuberances. This insistence files in the face of the theory of scarcity on which the modern world is built. An ideology of scarcity produces competitiveness that issues in brutality, justifies policies of wars and aggression, authorizes an acute individualism, and provides endless anxiety about money, sexuality, physical fitness, beauty, work achievements, and finally mortality. It seems clear to me that, in the end, all of these anxieties are rooted in an ideology that resists the notion of limitless generosity and extravagant abundance.” Brueggemann, Walter, An Unsettling God, (c. 2009 Fortress Press) p. 171. I would add that the same limitless generosity and extravagant abundance lies at the heart of Jesus’ proclamation of God’s reign. God would give us the kingdom, but God must first pry the status quo away from us so that our hands will be free to receive it.
BAPTISM OF OUR LORD
PRAYER OF THE DAY: O God our Father, at the baptism of Jesus you proclaimed him your beloved Son and anointed him with the Holy Spirit. Make all who are baptized into Christ faithful to their calling to be your daughters and sons, and empower us all with your Spirit, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.
The gospels all grapple with one single issue: the identity of Jesus. In his own words, Jesus asks “Who do you say that I am?” What the gospels give us is less a definitive answer than the parameters within and the springboard from which the church must struggle until the end of time with the same question. The Creeds of the church likewise do not end the inquiry, but rather mark decisive turning points along the way in our journey toward that time when, as Paul puts it, “we will know as we are known.”
Certain formulations of the church’s past understandings about Jesus were decisively rejected at Nicaea and Chalcedon while other formulations were recognized as faithful and true. These landmark confessions guard against our slipping back into inaccurate, incomplete and misleading formulations of the faith, but they do not finally answer Jesus’ question, “Who do you say that I am?” With the guidance of the Holy Spirit, under the norming authority of Scripture and in accord with the ecumenical Creeds, the church in every age must continue to articulate its teaching and shape its practices toward a deeper faith in Jesus and an ever more faithful witness to his saving work among us.
There has never been an age in the life of the church when the importance of Jesus’ identity was more critical than our own. This is so because the identity of Jesus in the United States has been hijacked by a contingent of largely white and largely male adherents to a deviant and truncated iteration of Christianity aligned with the ugliest manifestations of nationalism, racism, patriarchy and homophobia. It is maddening to hear the media regularly employing terms like “Christian” and “Evangelical” when referring solely to this narrow demographic. Rest assured (I find myself repeating to so many people whose perceptions of the church have been shaped by this vocal minority), the vile hate speech spewing from the likes of Franklin Graham, Mike Huckabee and James Dobson does not represent the preaching and teaching of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America to which I belong. We confess Jesus, the Son of the God who chose two nationless nomads to found a nation of blessing; the God who chose as his people a band of landless slaves over the powerful empires sparing for control of the earth. This God says of Jesus, “this is my beloved Son. With him I am pleased.” We follow this Jesus who didn’t have a single encouraging word for people who amass wealth nor a judgmental word to speak against the poor; who rejected family values over kingdom values; who associated himself throughout his ministry with people branded “sinners” by the “moral;” who was killed because he proclaimed the coming reign of God in which the wealthy and powerful will be toppled from their thrones and their wealth redistributed. Jesus staked his life on the coming reign of God and lost it in the process. He loved the world that much-all of it.
Now I hasten to add that we Lutherans have not been stellar examples of the Christ we proclaim. We are one of the whitest churches ever to thrive in the midst of this diverse culture growing on American soil. We have been shamefully slow to name the sins of racism and sexism among us. We have stumbled awkwardly and slowly toward recognizing and welcoming our LGBT members and the gifts they bring to our life and ministry. We are materialistic, institutionally entangled with systemic injustice, infatuated with worldly power and sadly lacking in spiritual vibrancy. Yet for all of our failures, we are at least failing in the right things. We are failed disciples of Jesus, but our failures at least testify to what we are striving to become. The worst football team in the league might be playing poorly and losing every game, but at least it is playing the game. Incompetent and inept as the players might be, they know what good football is supposed to look like and they are trying to get there. Their failures testify to what they know they should be and the game they are trying to play well.
I can’t say how successful these so-called “evangelicals” are in their game because I don’t know what game they are playing. All I can say is that it looks nothing like discipleship. Trash talking the poor, glorifying wealth, preaching hate against perceived “sinners,” advocating fear and distrust of people who are different and dealing with enemies by means of brute military force sounds nothing like the Jesus we meet in the New Testament and it certainly doesn’t sound like “good news” (the root meaning of “evangelical”). Whatever this game of theirs might be, it isn’t discipleship and it’s high time the rest of us under the “Christian” umbrella called them on it. Jesus is not the poster boy for white privilege, late stage capitalistic wealth accumulation, nationalism, bullying, sexism and discrimination. He is the friend of sinners, outcasts and what our culture regards as “the least” among us. He is the Son of our God who came to save, not condemn the world. What we say about Jesus is important. In fact, it is the most important issue we have to talk about and struggle with.Here is a poem in which Marcus Wicker struggles with the identity of Jesus.
Conjecture on the Stained Glass Image of White Christ at Ebenezer Baptist Church
For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body — Jews or Greeks, slaves or free — and all were made to drink of one Spirit.
—1 Corinthians 12:13
If in his image made am I, then make me a miracle.
Make my shrine a copper faucet leaking everlasting Evian to the masses.
Make this empty water glass a goblet of long-legged French wine.
Make mine a Prince-purple body bag designed by Crown Royal
for tax collectors to spill over & tithe into just before I rise.
If in his image made am I, then make my vessel a pearl Coupe de Ville.
Make mine the body of a 28-year-old black woman
in a blue patterned maxi dress cruising through Hell on Earth, TX
again alive. If in his image made are we, then why
the endless string of effigies?
Why so many mortal blasphemes?
Why crucify me in HD across a scrolling news ticker, tied
to a clothesline of broken necks long as Time?
Is this thing on? Jesus on the ground. Jesus in the margins.
Of hurricane & sea. Jesus of busted levees in chocolate cities.
Jesus of the Middle East (Africa) & crows flying backwards.
Of blood, on the leaves, inside diamond mines, in under-
developed mineral-rich countries. If in your image made are we,
the proliferation of your tie-dyed hippie doppelgänger
makes you easier to daily see. & in this image didn’t we make
the godhead, slightly stony, high enough to surf a cloud?
& didn’t we leave you there, where, surely, paradise or
justice must be meted out? Couldn’t we see where water takes
the form of whatever most holds it upright? If then this
is what it’s come down to. My faith, in rifle shells.
In Glock 22 magazine sleeves. Isn’t it also then how, why,
in a bucket shot full of holes, I’ve been made to believe?
Source, Poetry (December 2016) Marcus Wicker was born in Ann Arbor, Michigan in 1984. He is the poetry editor of Southern Indiana Review and serves as director of the New Harmony Writers Workshop. Wicker is currently an assistant professor of English at University of Southern Indiana. You can find out more about Marcus Wicker and sample more of his poetry at the Poetry Foundation website.
Verses 1-4 constitute the first of four “servant songs” found in the second of three major sections of Isaiah. See Summary Article by Fred Gaiser, Professor of Old Testament, Luther Seminary, St. Paul, MN. The other three servant songs are found at Isaiah 49:1-6; Isaiah 50:4-11 and Isaiah 52:13-53:12. According to biblical commentator Claus Westermann, these songs represent a special strand within section two of Isaiah. Westermann, Claus, Isaiah 40-66, The Old Testament Library (c. SCM Press, Ltd. 1969) p. 92. This section (Isaiah 40-55), you may recall, is attributed to an unnamed prophet who lived among the Babylonian exiles during the 6th Century. His was the task of alerting his fellow exiles to the new opportunity created for them to return home to Palestine opened up by Persia’s conquest of Babylon. On the one hand, the prophet makes a joyous declaration of salvation for Israel and announces the potential for a new start. On the other hand, the prophet makes clear that God is doing with Israel something entirely new. This will not be a return to “the good old days” when Israel was a powerful and independent people under the descendants of David. That, according to the prophet, “is too light a thing” for the people of God. The servant and the servant people are to be given “as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.” Isaiah 49:6.
Scholars hold differing views on the identity of the “servant” in these songs. Some view the servant as an individual, perhaps the prophet him/herself. Others maintain that the servant is the people of Israel whose covenant life in the restored Jerusalem will enlighten the nations. Christians from very early on have seen reflected in these verses the ministry of Jesus. It seems to me that all of these interpretations are valid in some measure. Clearly, the prophet himself/herself understood that s/he was announcing an act of God that would be revelatory for all peoples. So too Israel always had an awareness that her existence was in part a demonstration of God’s glory to the world though, like the church, she tended to forget that aspect of her calling at times. The church likewise confessed from the outset that Jesus’ lordship was defined in terms of the hopes and expectations set forth in the Hebrew Scriptures. Just as the faithful service of the prophet was a model for Israel’s servant role among the nations, so the church is a continuation of Jesus’ faithful ministry. In sum, these differing interpretations enrich rather than contradict one another.
There is an interesting contrast here between the conquering Cyrus (referred to as God’s “anointed” or “messiah.” Isaiah 45:1) before whom God “breaks in pieces the doors of bronze” and the servant who will not break a “bruised reed” or extinguish a “dimly burning wick.” Vs. 3. To be sure, God turns Cyrus (and all nations) to God’s own redemptive purposes. But they have no knowledge or understanding of these purposes. As far as they know, they are simply pursuing their own national interests. In the end, it is not the might of Cyrus, but the quiet and faithful servant who will “bring forth justice.” The servant will accomplish this through his humble ministry of healing and compassion. It bears repeating that the witness of non-violence and redemption through peacemaking do not begin with Jesus. While the Hebrew Scriptures reflect the cruelty and violence of the cultures in which they were composed, these harsh realities serve merely as a backdrop for the peaceful reign of God to which they testify.
The messiah will not be “discouraged.” Vs. 4. The task of “establishing justice in the earth” though forgiveness, reconciliation and peacemaking requires much patience. That is a quality sorely lacking in human nature generally. We want justice now. We want peace in our time. Oddly, it is often our impatient longing for peace and justice that leads us down the false path of violence. In the face of tyranny, injustice and oppression, violence promises a swift solution. Kill the enemy. Overthrow the “axis of evil.” Fight fire with fire. In reality, however, the victory obtained by violence only sows the seeds of future violence. Yesterday’s “freedom fighters” armed to undermine Soviet power are today’s terrorists against whom we are told we must also fight. Efforts to destroy these new enemies are building up resentment in an upcoming generation of Afghan and Pakistani youths. We are merely sowing for our children a new crop of enemies that may well prove more threatening still. The “short cut” to peace and justice violence promises leads finally into a vortex of hate, breeding more and more violence and destruction.
As long as peace and justice remain abstract nouns, concepts or ideals to be achieved, they will remain forever beyond our reach. Jesus does not promise a way to peace and justice. He calls us to live justly and peacefully. It is through communities that embody the heart of God revealed in Jesus that God’s justice and peace are offered to the world. That is a hard word for impatient people who become discouraged when they cannot see measurable results from their life’s work. Disciples of Jesus know, however, that there are no shortcuts to the kingdom of God. The cross is the only way. It is a hard, slow and painful way. But it is the one sure way. That is what makes it such an incredibly joyful way.
Many commentators suggest that this psalm is an Israelite poet’s adaptation of an ancient Phoenician hymn praising Baal-Hadad, the Canaanite storm god. Other commentators have maintained that the psalm is a liturgical recital of God’s appearance to Israel on Mt. Sinai. Both views might be correct. Israel frequently borrowed liturgical and literary material from its neighbors in shaping its own worship traditions. Thus, a hymn originally praising the storm god in the wake of a particularly fierce weather event might have served as a template for this psalm memorializing God’s stormy appearance on Sinai. Nothing wrong with that. After all, Luther was said to compose hymns from drinking songs.
The psalmist unashamedly attributes to Israel’s God the awe inspiring and often destructive effects of a storm. That is a little unnerving for us moderns who are squeamish about attributing anything to God that isn’t “nice.” Indeed, this psalm is particularly embarrassing in the shadow of tragic, large scale weather events. Did God send this week’s blizzards and brutal cold over the country or just allow it to occur? Does it make any difference either way? Is it more comforting to believe that God just fell asleep at the wheel and allowed a tornado to happen rather than to believe that God deliberately sent one? Has the universe gotten so far out of God’s hands that God is no longer able to prevent hurricanes, earthquakes and tsunamis?
I don’t pretend to have neat answers to all these questions. But perhaps part of our problem is our homocentric view of things. Indeed, I would go further and suggest that the problem may be with our “me” centered approach to faith. It seems to me that a lot of our prayers are exceedingly self-centered. We pray for good weather on our vacations-even in times when our farms are desperate for rain. We pray for an economic recovery without any thought to the economic, ecological and social havoc our economy wreaks upon the world. Even our prayers for others often have a strong streak of selfishness in them. As the father of a child with a chronic medical condition, a day does not go by that I don’t pray for her healing. Yet lately I have been wondering about my motives. Am I looking for a special miracle? By what right do I get to push to the head of the line of parents with sick children to receive such special treatment? Thanks to the benefits of medical treatment afforded by our insurance plan, my daughter is able to live a relatively normal and healthy life despite her condition. So shouldn’t any miracle go to a child without these benefits? I find that too often my prayers do not venture beyond my own needs, concerns and the small circle of people in my small world.
Perhaps this psalm gives us some perspective. The psalmist does not begin his or her prayer with a request that God stop the storm or steer it in some other direction. The psalm begins with praise, awe and reverence for God. As Jesus taught his disciples, that is where all prayer needs to begin. Recall that in both of the creation stories from Genesis, the world was created first. In the first chapter of Genesis, the earth and all its creatures were created and declared good. Then human beings were created to rule over and care for the earth. Likewise in the second chapter of Genesis: the earth was created and God planted a garden in the earth. Then God created human beings to tend and care for the garden. The message is clear. It’s not all about us. The world was not designed to be a twenty-first century playground that is so well padded and equipped with safety features that no kid could ever possibly get hurt-or have any fun either. No, the world is far more like the way playgrounds used to be-places where you can really play. It pains me to no end that my grandchildren will probably never know the ecstasy of rocketing half way to the sky on a real swing set. Nor will they ever experience the dizzying high you could get from one of those merry-go-rounds that we used to crank up to warp speed. Our public parks have been cleansed of all such unacceptable risks. The attorneys and insurance underwriters who have taken over our lives have determined that fun is just too dangerous for kids.
But don’t get me started on that. We were talking about the psalm and the fact that we are not the center of God’s universe. As C.S. Lewis once pointed out, God is not a tame lion. God is not “safe” and neither is the world God made. There is no room in the Bible or in real life for a wimpy, weak kneed religion that longs for a “nice” god. You can get hurt on this planet and tragically so. But for all that, the earth is a good place to be. It’s a place where you can have real fun. Beauty the likes of which you see in the ocean, in the storm and on the top of Sinai necessarily has an element of terror. The psalmist doesn’t hide in the storm shelter and plead with God not to be so scary. The psalmist praises God for this awesome display of power and rejoices in the beauty, wonder and terror of creation. This is the glorious world God made and the stage on which God acts. The psalmist doesn’t complain about its dangers. S/he prays instead that Israel will find the courage to live boldly and faithfully in this grand universe. Anybody who whines about bad weather and wishes that God had made a safer planet has never been on a real swing!
Acceptance of gentiles into the church was a contentious issue. Peter’s vision related in Acts 10:1-16 reflects the inner struggle of the deeply Jewish church with the positive response of gentiles to the good news about Jesus. Most Jews, like Peter, harbored serious reservations about receiving these outsiders 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. I Maccabees 1:62-64. How could Peter go into the home of a Roman, an oppressor of Israel to eat his 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. Peter had to give up his long held interpretation 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.
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.
The relationship between Jesus and John the Baptist has always been a subject of dispute among New Testament scholars. About all they can seem to agree upon is the fact that Jesus was baptized by John. Knowing as little as we do about John the Baptist and what his ministry represented, that isn’t much to go on. How did John understand his own role? The New Testament portrays him as Jesus’ forerunner, but did he see himself that way? It seems obvious to me that John saw himself as the forerunner of somebody. The gospels all agree on this point and, unless one rejects the gospel narratives as reliable information about John (some biblical scholars have), then it seems that John understood his baptism as a preparation for the coming of the Messiah. The Gospel of Matthew very explicitly identifies John’s ministry with the return of Elijah foretold in Malachi 4:5. see Matthew 17:9-13. Knowing what we do about the fate of John, this revelation can only alert us to the reception the Messiah will finally receive at the hands of Rome and the religious leadership in Jerusalem.
The larger question is: Why would Jesus seek out and submit to a baptism of repentance? Mark and Luke see no need to deal with this obvious question. The Gospel of John does not specifically state the Jesus was baptized by John, only that John bears witness to Jesus. Matthew, by contrast, puts into the mouth of John himself the question we must all be asking. “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” vs. 14. Jesus’ response is that his receipt of John’s baptism is necessary to “fulfill all righteousness.” But does that explain why Jesus would need a baptism of repentance? I suppose that depends on how you understand the word “repent.” Literally, the Greek word means to turn around or go in a new direction. In the New Testament context, the term means turning toward God and God’s will. For sinful human beings, that necessarily means turning away from sin. But for Jesus, the sinless Son of God, it means simply to turn toward God. That is not to say that Jesus ever was turned away from God, but merely that Jesus’ turning toward God is much the same as his being “eternally begotten of the Father.” As the obedient Son, Jesus is always turning toward God. Only as the Word becomes incarnate and becomes flesh (to borrow John’s language) does this turning appear as a discrete act rather than an intrinsic and essential aspect of his being. So understood, Jesus’ baptism into the body of people prepared by John for the coming of the Messiah is but another step in his messianic mission of drawing that body into the Kingdom of Heaven.
“This fulfilling takes place in the adoption of baptism: in that the Messianic judge of the worlds and the Messianic baptizer himself becomes a candidate for baptism, humbles himself and enters the ranks of sinners. By this means he fulfils ‘all righteousness.’” Barth, Gerhard, “Matthew’s Understanding of the Law,” printed in Tradition and Interpretation in Matthew, The New Testament Library (c. SCM Press Ltd 1963) p. 138. It is important to recognize that for both John and Jesus, righteousness has nothing to do with adherence to an objective moral code and everything to do with being rightly related to God and to neighbor. Nolland, John, The Gospel of Matthew-A Commentary on the Greek Text, The New International Greek Testament Commentary (c. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.) p. 154. That is not to say, of course, that the law has no importance for Matthew. To the contrary, Matthew more than any of the other gospel writers emphasizes Jesus as the fulfilment of the law, no part of which can be set aside as long as heaven and earth endure. Matthew 5:17-18. Yet for this very reason righteousness must grow not out of slavish obedience to the letter of the law, but out of faithfulness to Jesus. The latter righteousness exceeds the righteousness of the law as demonstrated by the Sermon on the Mount.
This gospel lesson is rich with references and allusions to the Hebrew Scriptures. The declaration of the divine voice is almost a direct quote from Psalm 2:
I will tell of the decree of the Lord:
He said to me, ‘You are my son;
today I have begotten you.
8 Ask of me, and I will make the nations your heritage,
and the ends of the earth your possession.
9 You shall break them with a rod of iron,
and dash them in pieces like a potter’s vessel.’
Psalm 2:7-9. Matthew’s allusion to this psalm reflects his conviction that Jesus is indeed Israel’s king. Yet this declaration must be juxtaposed to the so called “king of the Jews” we have already met, namely, Herod. The coronation of Jesus at his baptism signals a new kind of king that exercises a very different sort of power and calls us into a kingdom radically different from any nation or kingdom the world has ever known.
More distant scriptural echoes are heard in the creation out of the watery chaos in Genesis 1:1-2; the liberation of Israel from slavery into freedom by passage through the Red Sea. Exodus 14:1-15:2. Matthew means to let us know that, although Jesus is by every measure the king that was David, the teacher that was Moses and the prophet that was Elijah, he is much more. The presence of the Holy Spirit brooding over the waters of the Jordan into which Jesus enters and emerges testifies that God is doing something altogether new here. In the words of Stan Hauerwas, “Jesus is unleashed into the world. His mission will not be easy, for the kingdom inaugurated by his life and death is not one that can be recognized on the world’s terms. He is the beloved Son who must undergo the terror produced by our presumption that we are our own creators. He submits to John’s baptism just as he will submit to the crucifixion so that we might know how God would rule the world. His journey begins. Matthew would have us follow.” Hauerwas, Stanley, Matthew, Brozos Theological Commentary on the Bible (c. 2006 by Stanley Hauerwas, pub. by Brazos Press) p. 49.
FIRST SUNDAY OF CHRISTMAS
PRAYER OF THE DAY: O Lord God, you know that we cannot place our trust in our own powers. As you protected the infant Jesus, so defend us and all the needy from harm and adversity, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.
Just last week John the Evangelist delivered to us a lyrical recitation of God’s Word becoming flesh. This week Matthew the Evangelist delivers a narrative portrayal of precisely what that means. We get a close look at what John was talking about when he told us that “he came to his own people and his own would not receive him.” God is staking everything on a baby born into a world where life is cheap, where pity must not cloud decisions made for the sake of national security, where there is no truly safe place. That is the Christmas Story in a nutshell.
As the beneficiary of white male privilege, I didn’t grow up reading the Christmas Story in that way. I have been pretty thoroughly brainwashed by images of a safe, dray and cozy little manger with clean hay, gentle animals and well-washed shepherds. The manger I grew up with was not a rude and forbidding place at all. It was a comfortable suite warmed by the light of the star overhead and sheltered by angels. All was calm, all was bright. Nothing was scary.
It is precisely because I don’t experience the world as a dangerous place that I have to struggle against the heresy of progressivism. My people lament that, for the first time since the great depression, the current generation of American young people cannot expect to live better than their parents. Such a complaint could only come from among the privileged, those of us who grew up believing that the world is becoming a progressively better place; that every year is supposed to bring a raise and a bonus; that each newly manufactured i-phone will be better than the last. I don’t see the world from the perspective of those who, on their best day, see nothing in their future but bare survival.
Of course, I understand in a cerebral sort of way that I could easily die any given day of the week on New Jersey Route 4 as I make my way down to the church. I know there is a possibility that I might have a brain aneurism waiting to blow at any second. A few close brushes with near catastrophe on the road have given me brief glimpses into the existence people in Aleppo know as everyday life. Most of the time, however, I am blissfully unaware of my fragileness, my extreme vulnerability. Most of the time, I am not consciously living as though I were at risk. Most of the time, my comfortable position of privilege blinds me to my own vulnerability and hardens me toward those who know it all too well.
That’s a problem because the Messiah lives and breathes among the vulnerable. He was, after all, a child born to a homeless couple in a stable. He was a child of political refugees fleeing across the border into Egypt from the sword of a hostile government. Jesus was a child born into a people living under military occupation. He was sentenced to death and executed as a criminal. Among the oppressed, among the vulnerable, among the least of the human family-this is where the Word becomes flesh. For this reason, he is frequently invisible to those of us who know only privilege. His proclamation of good news to the poor fills us with dread rather than hope because we can see no further than what we stand to lose if he is right. For those of us whose lives are sheltered in privilege that is maintained at the expense of the rest of the world, the Christmas Story-the real one-kind of stinks.
Or does it? What if the privileged life we fear losing is not worth the efforts we are making to save it? What if the cost of protecting what we have with gated communities, locked doors, advanced alarm systems and elaborate surveillance protocols is robbing us blind? What if the fear of losing our stuff exceeds and spoils whatever enjoyment we get out of having it? What if you really could have Christ be at the center of your Christmas because you were no longer under the pressure to buy the latest gifts, put on the most elaborate feast and figure out how you will pay for it all when it’s over? What if we finally discovered that the only thing we really have to lose is our bondage to a materialistic and self-centered existence that is choking the last vestige of humanity out of us? What if we learned to see in the face of the poor, not the eyes of envy staring greedily at all we have, but the invitation of Jesus to care for him as generously as he cares for us?
The good news of Christmas for those of us who live in privilege is that, as mean, fearful and insensitive as we have become, the Messiah has come for us as well. Even now he is living on our streets, in refugee camps throughout the world, in our prisons and in our shelters. He is here. Emmanuel. God with us. May the Christmas narratives give us eyes to see him and hearts to embrace him.
Here’s a poem by Denise Levertov about the Word becoming flesh.
It’s when we face for a moment
the worst our kind can do, and shudder to know
the taint in our own selves, that awe
cracks the mind’s shell and enters the heart:
not to a flower, not to a dolphin,
to no innocent form
but to this creature vainly sure
it and no other is god-like, God
(out of compassion for our ugly
failure to evolve) entrusts,
as guest, as brother,
Denise Levertov (1923–1997) never received a formal education. Nevertheless, she created a highly regarded body of poetry that earned her recognition as one of America’s most respected poets. Her father, Paul Philip Levertov, was a Russian Jew who converted to Christianity and subsequently moved to England where he became an Anglican minister. Levertov grew up in a household surrounded by books and people talking about them in many languages. During World War II, Levertov pursued nurse’s training and spent three years as a civilian nurse at several hospitals in London. Levertov came to the United States in 1948, after marrying American writer Mitchell Goodman. During the 1960s Levertov became a staunch critic of the Vietnam war, a topic addressed in many of her poems of that era. Levertov died of lymphoma at the age of seventy-four. You can read more about Denise Levertov and sample more of her poetry at the Poetry Foundation Website.
This passage is the opening section of a psalm of intercession, the complete text of which is Isaiah 63:7-64:12. The entire psalm should be read in order to get the context of the verses making up our lesson. These verses constitute the beginning of a historical prologue that runs to verse 9. They recall Israel’s deliverance from Egypt and God’s leadership throughout her long journey to Canaan. Verses 10-19 acknowledge that, in contrast to God’s faithfulness to Israel, Israel has been less than faithful to her God. Indeed, “We have become like those over whom thou hast never ruled, like those who are not called by thy name.” vs. 19. The psalmist/prophet nevertheless appeals to God’s mercy and steadfast faithfulness to the covenant promises, confident that this God’s longsuffering love for his people remains even now. “Yet, O Lord, thou art our Father; we are the clay, and thou the potter; we are the work of thy hand. Be not exceedingly angry, O Lord, and remember not iniquity forever. Behold, consider, we are all they people.” Isaiah 64:8. Israel always understood what is expressed in the New Testament letter of James: “Mercy triumphs over judgment.” James 2:13. Therefore, Israel could be as insistent that God comply with his covenant promises as she was candid about her own covenant failures. God remains faithful even when his people are not.
This wonderful psalm comes to us from the third section of Isaiah composed by a prophet speaking to the Jews in Palestine following their return from Babylonian exile in the latter half of the 6th Century. They were resettling themselves in the land and seeking to rebuild their lives and their ruined city under extremely difficult conditions. The prayer makes clear to these people that their own unfaithfulness is largely responsible for the difficult plight in which they now find themselves. Nevertheless, they must also understand that while God punishes Israel’s unfaithfulness, he does not abandon Israel or cease to be faithful to his own covenant obligations. Therefore, Israel may indeed pray for and expect God to be merciful and lead her through these difficult days as God has always done for his chosen people. The bleak circumstances should therefore not blind the people of God to the promise of a future wrought in yet further acts of salvation.
This psalm is one of a group that begins and ends with an expression of praise: Hallelujah or “Praise YAHWEH.” (Psalms 146-150) It is beautifully structured. The injunctions to praise begin with the heavens, the angels, the sun, moon and starts descending to the earth and its creatures. The forces of nature, geographical features (mountains and hills) and plant life all are called to join in the choir of praise to God. All people from mighty kings, to slave girls to small children are drawn into this cosmic hymn of praise to the Creator. Finally, the call to praise is directed to “the people of Israel who are near to him.” 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.”
Psalm 148 is included in the song of praise sung by the three young men thrown into the fiery furnace by King Nebuchadnezzar in the 3rd Chapter of Daniel. Don’t look for it in your Bible, though. It is found only in the Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures (known as the Septuagint) and is omitted by most English translations that rely mainly on the Hebrew texts. It may also interest you Lutherans to know that this Apocryphal song is included in its entirety at page 120 of The Lutheran Hymnal, the official hymn book of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod from 1940 to the late 1970s.
It is difficult to date this psalm. Most scholars view it as a post-exilic psalm composed for worship in the Jerusalem temple rebuilt following the return from exile that began in 538 B.C.E. That does not preclude, however, the possibility that the author was working from the text or oral tradition of a much older tradition from the period of the Judean monarchy.
For my take on Hebrews, see my post of December 25, 2016. You might also want to take a look at the summary article of Craig R. Koester, Professor of New Testament at Luther Seminary on Enterthebible.org. Suffice to say that I believe the author of this letter is striving to demonstrate to a Christian audience traumatized by the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem how Jesus now fulfills the mediation function of the temple cult and its priesthood. This trauma was shared by the rest of the Jewish community (from which followers of Jesus were at this point inseparable). For what ultimately became modern Judaism, the Torah (in the broadest sense of the word) became the mediating agent of God’s redemptive presence. Worship in the Synagogue therefore revolved around the learning, study and application of Torah to the life of the community. For disciples of Jesus, Jesus himself was the mediator. He animated his resurrected Body, the church with his life giving Spirit made present through the church’s preaching and communal (Eucharistic) meals.
Here the author of Hebrews points out that Jesus fulfills his priestly office through offering himself in his full humanity. The sacrificial language permeating the letter can be off putting if we adopt the medieval notion that God needs a blood sacrifice in order to forgive our sins. This understanding (or misunderstanding) is common and underlies the theory of “substitutionary atonement,” namely, the belief that Jesus’ crucifixion was God’s act of justified punishment for human sin absorbed by Jesus so that we can avoid it. That is not how sacrifice was understood in the Hebrew Scriptures. Sacrifices were more often than not offered in thanksgiving. Moreover, even when offered to atone for sin, they were not seen as “payment.” Rather, they afforded the worshiper an opportunity to share in a holy a meal where reconciliation and forgiveness could be experienced and celebrated. In the one instance where sin is transferred to a sacrificial animal (Day of Atonement), the animal is not killed, but sent out into the wilderness. Leviticus 16:1-22. Clearly, God does not need to kill anyone in order to forgive us.
Rightly understood, the language of sacrifice makes good sense. The death of Jesus was a sacrifice in the sense that loving another person deeply always involves a sacrifice of self for the wellbeing of the loved one. That is particularly so where the loved one is deeply involved in self-destructive behavior and resistant to your efforts to help him or her. Parents who walk with their children through the dark valley of addiction know better than anyone else how deeply painful love can be and how much must sometimes be sacrificed. So also it cost God dearly to love a world in rebellion against him. When God embraced us with human arms we crucified him. Notwithstanding, God continues to love the world through Jesus’ resurrected (though wounded and broken) Body. Such is the sacrifice that is Jesus.
As throughout his entire gospel, Matthew gives us a panoply of direct references, allusions and echoes of the Hebrew Scriptures. The instances in both last week’s reading and this Sunday’s lesson in which Joseph is warned and guided by dreams remind us of another Joseph whose dreams ultimately led him to Egypt. See Genesis 37-50. Of course, the parallel between Moses’ escape from the Egyptian Pharaoh’s genocidal policies toward the Hebrew slaves and Jesus’ escape from Herod’s slaughter of the innocents is also hard to miss. Jesus’ time spent in Egypt parallels Israel’s painful sojourn in that land of bondage and his return to Palestine shadows Israel’s Exodus from Egypt and return to the land promised to Abraham and Sarah.
Matthew cites Jeremiah 31:15:
A voice is heard in Ramah,
lamentation and bitter weeping.
Rachel is weeping for her children;
she refuses to be comforted for her children,
because they are no more.
Jeremiah is speaking here about the ten tribes forming the Northern Kingdom of Israel that fell to Assyria in about 721 B.C.E. Much of the population was carried into exile and so the land, personified by Rachel-mother of the northern “Joseph” tribes-weeps for her exiled children. The brutality of Herod, the so called “King of the Jews,” is contrasted with that of the hated Assyrian Empire. It should be noted that Herod was not a Jew and there were few Jews who would have recognized him as their legitimate king. He was, in fact, an Edomite. Edom, you may recall from prior posts, sided with the Babylonians and took part in their sack of Jerusalem in 587 B.C.E. Moreover, he was appointed King of Judea by the Jews’ hated Roman overlords. Though he sought to win the affection of his Jewish subjects through building a temple in Jerusalem that surpassed even Solomon’s, Herod was still hated by all but those in the highest echelons of power who benefited from his corrupt reign.
I believe that Matthew is consciously juxtaposing Herod, “King of the Jews” to Jesus who will also receive this title, though only as a cruel jest. The king who hangs onto his throne by means of dealing death is contrasted with the king who raises the dead. The king who rules through violence is contrasted with the king who renounces violence. The king who by desperate and despicable acts of cruelty seeks to hang onto his life is contrasted with the king who pours out his life for the people he loves. We are asked to decide which king really reigns. God’s verdict is expressed in Jesus’ resurrection. Herod is still dead. Jesus lives. That says it all.
Most scholars question the historicity of this account of the slaughter of the innocents in Bethlehem. They point out that Herod died in 4 B.C.E.-before Jesus is supposed to have been born. The birth date historically assigned to Jesus is mostly arbitrary, however. We cannot say with any certainty precisely when Jesus was born and a four year discrepancy is hardly conclusive. Although there is no other historical record of this terrible event, that too is not necessarily dispositive. Herod was well known for his paranoia and brutality. The appearance of an astronomical phenomenon accompanied by rumors that the descendent to arise from the City of David foretold by the scriptures had been born would surely be sufficient to trouble this tyrant who in his later years became increasingly paranoid and fearful of losing his throne. Herod’s cruel and inhuman command to murder all infants two years and under would hardly have been out of character for a man capable of killing his wife of many years and his own children. In a period during which the Roman Empire was still smarting from civil war, repressing revolutionary uprisings and seeking to crush banditry, it would hardly be surprising that a tragedy of only local significance should fail to find its way into these blood soaked annals of history. That said, it is also clear that Matthew employs this event as a literary device designed to illuminate the person and work of Jesus through parallels with Hebrew scriptural people and events. Thus, we ought not to obsess over whether and to what extent the slaughter of the innocents correlates with any particular historically verifiable event.