Posts Tagged war
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.
THIRD SUNDAY OF ADVENT
PRAYER OF THE DAY: Stir up the wills of all who look to you, Lord God, and strengthen our faith in your coming, that, transformed by grace, we may walk in your way; through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.
John the Baptist is languishing in Herod’s prison for speaking truth to power. There is often a price to be paid for such audacity. In three decades of ministry I have lost members in all three of the parishes I served because I said things they didn’t want to hear. I have also lost friends and I have relatives who no longer wish to speak to me on that account. That is painful. I will forever be asking myself whether I could have spoken more clearly, with greater temperance or with a higher degree of gentleness. Yet I cannot regret having spoken the truth, however ineptly I may have put it. Remaining silent is never an option. Those who fail to speak when the flag of falsehood flies unchallenged are as guilty as the ones who hoisted the banner in the first place. Hard truths must be spoken regardless of how they will be received and in spite of the consequences for the truth teller.
Of course, the discomfort I have occasionally experienced in truth speaking pales in comparison with John’s losing his freedom and, ultimately, his head. I have never received a threat of death or bodily injury for anything I have ever said. I would like to believe that is because we live in a society that values freedom of expression. But perhaps it is because I have failed to speak the truth as frequently and forcefully as I ought. I know that there have been many times when I failed to speak the truth at all in order to avoid far lesser consequences than John’s. I often wonder whether I would find the courage to speak truthfully in circumstances under which the truth would cost me dearly. Am I ready to go to prison for the truth or even to death? I fervently pray that I will never have to learn the answer to these questions!
One needs to take care in prophetic truth telling. My ability to recognize and articulate the truth is clouded by my own biases, prejudices and ignorance. Because I view the world through the eyes of white male privilege, I am sometimes blind to injuries and injustices taking place under my nose. Moreover, what at first blush appears to be an obvious case of injustice might become a good deal more complicated and nuanced in light of all the facts-some of which I might not be aware. Furthermore, the truth is more than the sum of the facts. Paul admonishes us to “speak the truth in love.” Ephesians 4:15. In a sense, that is redundant because, unless spoken in love, the truth is not really the truth. This is not to say that the truth cannot be spoken passionately, even angrily. But it must always be spoken with the ultimate intent to heal and reconcile. Words spoken to incite hatred, appeal to prejudice or foment violence are never true. Never.
In this age where civil discourse has broken down, arguments have given way to insults, racist ideology is making its way back into the mainstream and sexual violence by powerful predatory males is finding acceptance, the need for truthful speech is more urgent than ever before. The ideological demons need to be named and exorcised by the truth as we know it in Christ Jesus. Silence in such a time as this is tantamount to lying. Here’s a ruthlessly truthful yet compassionate poem about America which, though published in 1925, could have been written today.
Shine, Perishing Republic
While this America settles in the mould of its vulgarity, heavily thickening
And protest, only a bubble in the molten mass, pops and sighs out, and the
I sadly smiling remember that the flower fades to make fruit, the fruit rots
to make earth.
Out of the mother; and through the spring exultances, ripeness and decadence;
and home to the mother.
You making haste haste on decay: not blameworthy; life is good, be it stubbornly
long or suddenly
A mortal splendor: meteors are not needed less than mountains:
shine, perishing republic.
But for my children, I would have them keep their distance from the thickening
Never has been compulsory, when the cities lie at the monster’s feet there
are left the mountains.
And boys, be in nothing so moderate as in love of man, a clever servant,
There is the trap that catches noblest spirits, that caught – they say –
God, when he walked on earth.
Source: Roan Stallion, Tamar and Other Poems, by Robinson Jeffers (c. 1925 by Boni & Liveright). Robinson Jeffers was born in 1887 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He was the son of Presbyterian minister and Biblical scholar, Dr. William Hamilton Jeffers. In 1902, Jeffers enrolled in Western University of Pennsylvania. When his family moved to California, he transferred to Presbyterian Occidental College from which he graduated at age 18. Jeffers traveled widely throughout Europe and was well versed in Biblical and classical languages. His poetry celebrates the grandeur of the natural world every bit as much as it denigrates human nature and achievement. Jeffers’ pessimistic view of America’s destiny undermined what was initially a favorable response from its artistic community. Nonetheless, he remains a formidable influence on American poetry to the present day. You can find out more about Robinson Jeffers and read more of his poems at the Poetry Foundation website.
For a quick overview of the Book of the Prophet Isaiah, see the Summary Article at enterthebible.org by Fred Gaiser, Professor of Old Testament at Luther Seminary. To summarize the summary: The first part of this long book (Chapters 1-39) contains messages of judgment and warning similar to those of the other 8th Century prophets against hypocritical worship, complacency, and the failure to act with justice for the poor. As illustrated by the readings for the last two weeks, the prophet also speaks poetically and with graphic imagery about God’s coming messianic kingdom. The second part of the book (Chapters 40-55) brings words of comfort and hope to the exiles in Babylonian captivity in the 6th Century B.C.E. This section contains the “suffering servant” passages we commonly read during Lent and Holy Week such as Isaiah 53. Part three (Chapters 56-65) is made up of warnings and promises for the Jewish community after its return to Jerusalem following the fall of Babylon in 538 B.C.E.
If only it were really that simple! In fact, all three sections underwent editing by other prophetic authors who composed their own material or wove oracles and sayings from other sources into the collection of sayings they had received. Further editing and inclusion of sources took place as these three sections were brought together into the Book of Isaiah we have today. Thus, for example, our reading from today, though included in the collection of sayings made up primarily of the 8th Century prophet Isaiah, is likely a product of the 6th Century or perhaps as late as the 5th Century B.C.E. The parallels between this passage and similar verses in Second Isaiah such as Isaiah 55:12-13 suggest to some scholars a connection with the prophet of Second Isaiah or his disciples. Mauchline, John Isaiah 1-39, (c. 1962, SCM Press, Ltd.) p. 128. Some Hebrew scripture scholars also suggest that the prophetic utterance is even more recent dating from after the return of the Jews from Exile. They maintain that the “Holy Way” of which the prophet speaks is not only a return route from Babylon, but a multifaceted highway leading from the ends of the earth to Jerusalem by which Diaspora Jews (“the redeemed of the Lord”) may safely travel to the Holy City on pilgrimages. Kaiser, Otto, Isaiah 13-39, A Commentary, The Old Testament Library (c. 1974 SCM Press Ltd.) p. 362. A few authorities still maintain that this passage should be attributed to the prophet Isaiah of the 8th Century. They interpret the miraculous highway described therein as one for the return of the tribes of the Northern Kingdom conquered and carried into exile by the Assyrian Empire around 721-23 B.C.E. Mauchline, supra, p. 228. For reasons far too boring to discuss, I lean toward the late 6thto early 5th Century dating, but all of these theories are plausible.
As far as the canonical context goes, these jubilant verses of salvation, growth and renewal follow a withering oracle of judgment decreed against the nations in general and Edom in particular. Geographically, Edom was located south of Judea and the Dead Sea. See map. From the time of King Saul, Edom was subject to varying degrees of Israelite rule and suffered severe military reprisals for its efforts to win independence. Not surprisingly, then, Edom sided with the Babylonians in their final war with Judah and joined the Babylonian army in plundering Jerusalem. This perceived act of treachery was long remembered and the Judean thirst for revenge, chillingly expressed in the final verses of Psalm 137, was deeply impressed upon Israel’s psyche.
Though some scholars characterize Isaiah 34 as “apocalyptic,” I believe the label is misplaced. While the judgment in this chapter refers to cataclysmic cosmic events such as the stars of the heavens falling and the sky rolling up like a scroll, such hyperbolic language was common to prophets of the 8th Century when pronouncing God’s judgment within the confines of history. Furthermore, while the transformation of the desert into a garden-like highway free of intemperate weather and wild beasts is surely a miraculous event, it is no more historically improbable than Israel’s rescue at the Red Sea. I therefore believe that both chapters 34 and 35 have more in common with the earlier prophets’ preaching from the Exodus, Wilderness Wandering and Conquest of Canaan narratives than with the later apocalyptic writing such as that found in Daniel.
As with the lessons from the previous two weeks, these promises of salvation, reconciliation among the nations and world peace are spoken against the backdrop of an unstable and violent geopolitical landscape. The good news for such people “who lived in a land of deep darkness” (Isaiah 9:2) is that it does not have to be this way, nor will it always be so. In the very midst of all this chaos, injustice, meaningless bloodshed and cruelty, God is at work bringing to birth a new creation. Isaiah was no ivory tower theologian. He was deeply involved in the social, political and military issues faced by his country as Chapter 7 of Isaiah demonstrates. But the prophet and his later literary descendants recognized that the realities of violence, injustice and oppression were not the only and certainly not the final realities. They were convinced that the future belonged to the gentle reign of Israel’s God who alone is worthy of worship and ultimate loyalty.
This is a psalm of praise celebrating the sovereignty of Israel’s God. Like the remaining psalms in the Psalter (Psalm 147-Psalm 150) the hymn begins and ends with the exclamation, “hallelujah” which is Hebrew for “Praise Yahweh!” More than likely, this psalm comes rather late in Israel’s history. There is no mention of the line of David or any hint of the monarchy in Israel. After a half millennia of disappointing kings whose leadership ultimately led to the destruction of Solomon’s temple, the siege of Jerusalem and the loss of the promised land, Israel was in no mood to put her trust in yet another royal figure:
Do not put your trust in princes,
in mortals, in whom there is no help.
When their breath departs, they return to the earth;
on that very day their plans perish.
Vss. 3-4. Instead, Israel is encouraged to put her trust in God. God is the one ruler who “sets the prisoners free.” Only “the Lord opens the eyes of the blind…lifts up those who are bowed down…” and “loves the righteous.”vss. 7-9. The only king worthy of our trust is the God of Israel.
The psalm concludes with the bold affirmation that the Lord will reign forever. The implication is that God has been reigning throughout history in spite of some severe setbacks for Israel and despite her precarious existence under foreign domination and occupation. This confidence is rooted in Israel’s past experience of God’s salvation for the poor and downtrodden in the Exodus, Wilderness Wanderings and the Conquest of the Land of Canaan. The return from Exile might also be in view here.
But it must also be said that Israel’s faith is future oriented. There is reflected here a hope, expectation and longing for the “Day of the Lord” when perfect justice and righteousness will be established. This hope is sometimes expressed in military terms, though even when Israel prevailed over her enemies in war, she always understood these victories as engineered by God. See, e.g., Deuteronomy 8:17; Psalm 44:1-3. Yet from the time of the Judges to the time of the Maccabean rulers, Israel’s experience with political and military rulers had been a disappointment. Even the best of these leaders had failed to inaugurate anything like the new creation to which her prophets testified. Clearly, another kind of messiah was needed.
Once again, the lectionary people have committed exegetical malpractice, cutting the reading off before the most important verse, that being James 5:11: “Indeed, we call those blessed who were steadfast…” Not in this country. We call those blessed who are “over comers,” “high achievers,” “result getters.” Too often, the church falls into step with these false values. Mission strategies too often aim at institutional growth and stability instead of faithful witness. Congregations judge their pastors on membership growth, giving levels and building projects instead of faithfulness to the work of sacramental ministry, preaching, teaching, evangelism and public witness. Congregations are judged by their ability to support the denomination’s programs and initiatives. Results, not steadfastness are the measure of a disciple’s worth in this twisted understanding of mission and church.
James points out that patience is a principal virtue for disciples of Jesus. There is nothing a disciple can or must do to make God’s kingdom come. God has that covered. Our task is to recognize the reign of Christ as the only genuine future there is and live accordingly. We don’t ask silly questions like: “How do I know that my contributions to hunger relief will bring any measurable improvement to people’s lives? How can I be sure that my efforts to achieve reconciliation will succeed? How can I know whether forgiveness of my enemy will only be seen as weakness and so invite more aggression?” The simple answer is that you don’t know and it doesn’t matter. Disciples feed the hungry, seek reconciliation and forgive their enemies because Jesus tells us too. That is enough reason. Let God worry about the results and how they fit into the future God is preparing for creation. That is not a bad message for those of us who have been waiting for two millennia for the consummation of God’s reign.
Last week we met John the Baptist at the peak of his career baptizing the crowds coming to him from all over Judea. Now we meet him near the end of his career, languishing in Herod’s prison. We know so little about John’s religious outlook that it is difficult to know what expectations he may have had for Jesus. Like Jesus, John proclaimed that the kingdom of heaven was at hand and called for repentance. Matthew 3:2. He proclaimed the coming of one who would “baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire.” Matthew 3:11. The “you” here refers to the people as a whole rather than to individuals. Such fiery baptism would purge the people, separating the chaff from the wheat. It is in anticipation of this baptism of fire that John’s baptism of repentance is offered. So from Matthew’s perspective, John’s question seems to be whether Jesus is the one to bring about this baptism of fire that will cleanse the people of Israel, thereby making them fit for the coming reign of heaven.
There is good reason for John’s doubts. So far from separating the wheat from the chaff, Jesus associates with the chaff, the “sinners” and outcasts of his people. He touches people who are unclean and violates the Sabbath-hardly the sort of behavior you would expect from someone sent to purify the people of Israel. Though Jesus has established a following, he also faces stiff and perhaps insurmountable opposition from the powerful Pharisees and the Sadducean leadership in Jerusalem. Moreover, John’s reward for baptizing and endorsing Jesus is prison and ultimately death. It seems that Jesus has some explaining to do.
As is his usual habit, Jesus does not give John’s messengers a direct answer. He merely tells the messengers to go back to John and tell him what they have seen. “You be the judge,” says Jesus. “The blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.” What’s your verdict? Vs. 5. That might sound like a no-brainer. Much of this comes straight from our lesson in Isaiah and the rest goes considerably beyond. If works like these cannot convince a skeptic, what can? And yet, Jesus goes on to add, “and blessed is anyone who takes no offence at me.’” Vs. 6.
What does Jesus mean by that? I suspect that part of this stems from John’s imprisonment. Jesus must be a poor sort of messiah if he cannot save his messenger, the promised Elijah, from the clutches of a penny ante thug like Herod Antipas. How will he fare against the Roman Empire? Jesus seems unaware or unconcerned that the jaws of powerful historical currents are closing in upon him. In view of all this, what difference do all these wonderful signs make? To what use is sight restored only to see more injustice and oppression? The relief Jesus provides to the individuals he touches means nothing if the rest of the vast creation remains untouched and enslaved to systemic sin. Even now the offense of the cross is in view and John’s question seems to be: “If Jesus winds up getting himself crucified, as seems likely, will there be another to whom we can look for salvation?” The answer is “no,” there will be no other and that is the core of the offense.
Jesus’ remarks about John’s role indicate clearly that something is dying with John. Notions of messianic salvation molded on tactics of violence, whether through military action or through imposition of morality, whether they are grounded in the scriptures or elsewhere, have no place in Jesus’ mission. Our efforts to build a moral society through just laws and procedures are doomed to failure. Whatever hopes we have for salvation through political or military might, through education and knowledge or through gradual human progress die on the cross. History is not something made by great societies or influential individuals. God is directing history toward his own chosen future which is revealed in Jesus’ resurrection. The way lies through the cross-suffering endured as a result of living the precepts of the Sermon on the Mount in a world that is, for now, hostile to the way of life it portrays. It bears repeating: it is not that the Sermon provides a blue print for a perfect church or a better society. Rather, it reflects the future Jesus promises and invites us to live in even now. What prophets like John could only foretell Jesus inaugurates-under the sign of the cross.
First Sunday of Advent
Prayer of the Day: Stir up your power, Lord Christ, and come. By your merciful protection save us from the threatening dangers of our sins, and enlighten our walk in the way of your salvation, for you live and reign with the Father and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.
“Salvation is nearer to us now than when we first believed.” Romans 13:11.
At first blush, this isn’t particularly encouraging. These words of Paul were written in the middle of the First Century to a church that could not have existed much longer than a couple of decades. A couple of millennia later we hear this message and wonder what Paul could possibly have meant when he told the Christians of Rome that “the night is far gone” and “the day is at hand.” The stock answer given by a lot of New Testament scholars back in my seminary days was that Paul, like all First Century believers, expected the return of Jesus in his own lifetime. Neither he nor any of the other early believers suspected that the return of Jesus in glory might be “delayed” for a century, to say nothing of over two thousand years and counting. That explanation allows us to dismiss much of the New Testament’s ethical teachings on grounds that they are “eschatological” in nature. The Sermon on the Mount, Paul’s love ethic and the communal existence we read about in the Book of Acts must be understood as hastily drawn, interim guidelines for a community that did not believe it would be living in the present age for very long. Clearly, communal living, non-violence and renunciation of wealth are not practices that can be the defining values for a community desiring to maintain itself over the historical long run. At best, they reflect ideals for which monks and nuns might aspire, but which we who must live in the “real world” find unhelpful. So we can safely dispose with the New Testament and look elsewhere for ethical guidance.
As I have said in prior posts, I find this reading of the New Testament unpersuasive. While none of us can see into Saint Paul’s brain, I strongly suspect that his view of Jesus’ return in glory was a good deal more nuanced than these scholars allow. Though convinced of the imminent reality of Christ’s return in glory, the final judgment and the resurrection of the dead, Paul’s primary focus is always very much on the present state of things. The moral practices of his churches are anything but an afterthought. His is an ethic for a church living in the darkness of this present age in which the works of darkness abound in the surrounding culture. Paul’s call for militant resistance to the darkness with the “armor of light” underscores his confidence that the inbreaking of God’s kingdom is as sure as the dawn. How near or far away the sunrise might be in chronological time is irrelevant. For the disciple of Jesus, the hour is always late. Morning is already on the horizon. The light is already breaking into the world and the time for waking up and getting on with life in God’s resurrection kingdom is now. This, according to Paul, is the “real world.”
Paul has no interest in faith that accommodates the darkness. He doesn’t preach a gospel that helps us “cope” with the realities of our world. That’s why we have valium and TV. The status quo is not to be endured, but resisted. Paul has no use for a faith that is hardly worth pulling the kids out of soccer practice to learn. If the church doesn’t preach something worth your life’s devotion, then it should not be wasting an hour of your time on Sunday either. If the lives of Christians are not noticeably different from those of everyone else, what’s the point of joining the church? There are plenty of other places with good coffee, friendly people and entertaining things to do-and nobody will stick a plate under your nose. A church that fits nicely into its community is not worth the oxygen it uses up. It has gotten so comfortable living in the dark that it thinks it belongs there. When the light of God’s kingdom breaks in, such churches find themselves blinded and frantically shuttering their eyes just like everyone else.
Paul boldly proclaims a brand new reality-something that is worth living for and, if necessary, dying for. Paul calls us to re-orientate our focus. We look in vain toward the western horizon, trying desperately to find light and hope in the ever diminishing glow of the vanishing day. Instead, we need to face the darkness squarely with the confident belief that our salvation comes from the dawn whose light cannot yet be seen, but whose coming is as certain as yesterday’s end. We are challenged to be communities living in the darkness as though in broad daylight; people shaping our lives as though we lived now in the nearer presence of our Lord. We are challenged to become the kind of communities we long for and that, by virtue of Jesus’ resurrection, we confidently anticipate. In the face of so much doom saying, the Advent scriptures insist that the night in which we now live must inevitably give way to a new day.
What does such an Advent community look like in a fragmented society such as ours? What does church look like in neighborhoods filled with strangers who commute hours to their place of work and socialize principally with clients and coworkers? What does Jesus’ call to discipleship mean for people increasingly enslaved by the demands of employers, financial institutions to which they are indebted and the anxieties of unemployment, loss of medical insurance and everything that follows in the wake of such losses?
Perhaps the most important contribution the church has to offer is that of simply being the church. What made the church an object of awe in the New Testament was its members’ commitment to one another. There was not among them any that were in need, Luke tells us in the Book of Acts. This was a community that said to a world under imperial oppression, military occupation and slavery, “It doesn’t have to be this way.” Hunger is not inevitable. Class distinctions are not absolute. Race is not a defining human characteristic. Conflict need not lead to violence. This community is living proof of that. This is a demo plot for the reign of Christ. Not surprisingly, a lot of people who witnessed all this wanted in. In the New Testament church, your fellow disciples had your back. That was important because discipleship was dangerous. Taken seriously, it still is. And it’s costly. It takes guts for a congregation to pledge that none of its members will ever go without a roof over his head, the medical care she needs or food on the table. It takes courage to give sacrificially to help a sister or brother in time of need trusting that the community will be there for you when your time of need comes. It’s risky to open your doors to strangers. Societies that specialize in building walls between peoples (real and metaphorical) don’t like seeing them knocked down. But that is precisely what the kingdom of heaven does.
There is a danger, Saint Paul knew, of becoming too comfortable with the darkness, too much at home in a world that is in rebellion against its Creator. Here’s a poem by Ilya Kaminsky about such false and deceptive comfort.
We Lived Happily During the War
And when they bombed other people’s houses, we
but not enough, we opposed them but not
enough. I was
in my bed, around my bed America
was falling: invisible house by invisible house by invisible house.
I took a chair outside and watched the sun.
In the sixth month
of a disastrous reign in the house of money
in the street of money in the city of money in the country of money,
our great country of money, we (forgive us)
lived happily during the war.
Ilya Kaminsky was born in 1977 in the former Soviet Union city of Odessa. His family was granted political asylum by the United States in 1993 and they settled in Rochester, New York. Kaminsky earn a BA in political science at Georgetown University and a JD at the University of California’s Hastings College of Law. He is a recipient of the Whiting Writers’ Award, the Milton Center’s Award for Excellence in Writing, the Florence Kahn Memorial Award, Poetry magazine’s Levinson Prize as well as their Ruth Lilly Fellowship, Philips Exeter Academy’s George Bennett Fellowship, and a Lannan Foundation fellowship. You can learn more about Ilya Kaminsky and sample more of his poetry at the Poetry Foundation website.
The introductory comment at verse 1 indicates that this chapter begins a collection of sayings associated with the prophet Isaiah that once constituted an independent collection. The material from our lesson was therefore not joined to the rest of what we now know as the Book of Isaiah until a later time. The prophesies introduced by this opening line probably extend at least until Isaiah 4:6 and may also include Isaiah 5:1-7; Isaiah 5:8-24; Isaiah 10:1-4; Isaiah 9:8-21; Isaiah 5:25, 26-30. Kaiser, Otto, Isaiah 1-12, A Commentary, The Old Testament Library (c. 1972 SCM Press Ltd.) p. 23.
Verses 2-5 are also found in Micah 4:1-4. This could mean that one prophet was relying upon the other, but the more probable explanation is that this oracle of salvation grew out of ancient Israelite cultic worship traditions from which both prophets drew. Kaiser, supra goes so far as to suggest that the saying was introduced into the works of both prophets by a later editor in the post-exilic period. Placement of such a liturgical expression of hope from pre-exilic times into the collected oracles of these pre-exilic prophets strengthened the prophetic witness and encouraged the post-exilic community in its struggle to understand its new role as God’s people in their changed circumstances.
Be that as it may, the saying in its present context (which is the only one that really interests me) juxtaposes in stark contrast the future declared by Israel’s God against the present reality of impending and actual war. In the midst of this violent geopolitical neighborhood where imperial superpowers vie for control and the smaller players seek to survive by playing one such empire off against the next through ever shifting alliances, the little nation of Judah is called to be something other than one more petty kingdom thrown into the mix. “The mountain of the house of the Lord shall be established as the highest of the mountains” says the prophet. Isaiah 2:2. Yet what exalts Judah is not her military might or her commercial power, but her Torah. Her covenant wisdom, not her sword will bring all nations under the righteous reign of Israel’s God. When the treasure of Torah is opened up to the nations, they will seek it eagerly and submit their disputes to God’s judgment there under. When perfect justice is so established, weapons will become obsolete. Resources dedicated to producing them can now be put to more productive use. Verse 5 concludes with a plea for Judah to begin doing now what she and all other nations must inevitably do in the end: walk in the light of the Lord. God’s people are called to live in God’s future now.
This passage presents a bold challenge to all of us in mainline churches that have reliably and often uncritically supported military action, assuming it to be a necessary accessory to the “kingdom of God’s left hand” (To use a peculiarly Lutheran term). Though we generally subscribe to the “just war doctrine,” we seldom apply its criterion vigorously when the prospect of military conflict ensues. More often than not, we issue preachy/screechy denominational statements for public consumption, stand on the sidelines and allow political and military leaders to make all the decisions based largely on “national interests,” which, by the way, do not justify military action according to just war doctrine. How might we begin “walking in the light of the Lord” in the midst of this very violent global village? In a society where trading sound bites and exchanging rhetorical barbs from across entrenched ideological battle lines passes for dialogue, how do communities of faith bear witness to a better way of conversing with one another about important issues? How do churches reflect to the world an alternative way of living together?
This psalm is part of a collection within the Psalter designated “Songs of Ascent.” (Psalms 120-134) While the precise meaning of this title is unknown, it is probable that these psalms were used on the occasion of pilgrimages to Jerusalem by Diaspora Jews visiting the second temple built following the return from Babylonian Exile. It is important to keep in mind, however, that although these psalms were compiled into this collection following the Babylonian Exile, the psalms themselves or portions of them might well belong to a much earlier period.
The psalmist expresses devotion to and longing for Jerusalem. Verse 1 suggests that the pilgrim is overcome with awe upon arriving at the holy city and standing within its gates. Though probably used by post-exilic pilgrims visiting Jerusalem, these verses might well date back to the monarchic period of Judah when the kingdom of David was still intact. The psalmist refers to Jerusalem as the place where all the tribes come together. Vs. 4. Though th
is was surely the case during the reigns of David and Solomon, it is not clear whether and to what extent this practice was continued by the northern ten tribes after the kingdom was divided into Israel in the north and Judah in the south. The phrase may therefore indicate early composition between 1000 B.C.E. to 900 B.C.E. during the united monarchy. On the other hand, the reference might well be symbolic, reflecting the unifying function of Jerusalem for Diaspora Jews following the return from exile in 530 B.C.E.
Verse 6 seems to be a word play on “Jerusalem,” the shorter form of which is “Salem,” and “peace” which in Hebrew is “Shalom.” Thus, “Pray for the shalom of Jerusalem.” The term shalom means more than mere absence of conflict. It denotes wholeness, health and wellbeing. As I have often said before, I am not a big fan of interfaith dialogue as it seldom produces anything more than generalities and platitudes you can get at your local Hallmark store. However, I believe that Jews, Muslims and Christians might have a fruitful discussion about what the city of Jerusalem means in each of their respective traditions and how, working together, we might make it a place of peace.
This snippet from Paul’s letter to the Romans comes in the middle of some admonitions delivered to the Roman church. Paul has completed in Chapter 11 his lengthy discussion of Israel’s and the church’s role in God’s plan of redemption. Now he turns to practical pastoral concerns. Paul speaks more generally here than in his other letters, probably because this is a congregation Paul did not start and has never personally visited. Nevertheless, he appears to know several of the persons involved with the congregation at Rome, most notably Prisca (Priscilla) and Aquila who assisted him in founding the church at Corinth. Acts 18:1-4.
Paul begins by urging the Roman believers to “present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God.” Romans 12:1. He then warns them not to be conformed to the surrounding culture, but “transformed by the renewal of your mind, that you may prove what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.” Romans 12:2. These verses reflect the practical outcome of Paul’s understanding of church as the presence of and witness to the resurrected Christ in the midst of the world. The church’s life is to reflect God’s future, an alternative to the carnivorous culture of death that is the Roman Empire. Just as Jesus’ body was broken on the cross, the resurrected Body of Christ can expect resistance and opposition to its way of being in the world. Thus, the sacrifice Paul calls for here is not an afternoon of raking leaves out of the church parking lot. Being the church is a dangerous profession.
In the reading for today Paul urges the Roman congregation to “stay awake” and be alert, for “salvation is nearer to us now than when we first believed.” Romans 13:11. That theme is echoed in our gospel lesson from Matthew. The phrase that caught my eye in this reading was Paul’s call to “put on the Lord Jesus Christ.” Having had three of my kids in the high school band, I know firsthand the transformative effect of a uniform. The band uniform was a reminder to my children and their fellow band members that they were not just another bunch of high school kids. They were members of an organization that made certain demands on them, set them apart from the rest of the community and called them to a higher standard of conduct. They acted much differently when in uniform.
A uniform also raises expectations from outsiders. If fire breaks out in a building, you wouldn’t blame anyone for trying to get out-unless the person is wearing the gear of a fire fighter. You expect fire fighters to act differently in the face of a fire. You expect them to enter into the zone of danger. They are not supposed to run away from it. Similarly, when one puts on Christ one assumes the calling of a disciple of Jesus. As Jesus offered himself up as a living sacrifice, so his disciples are called to place themselves in harm’s way if necessary for the sake of God’s Kingdom.
With the dawn of a new church year, we say farewell to Luke and embark on the gospel narrative given to us by Matthew. Though most scholars date both Matthew and Luke sometime after the destruction of the Jerusalem temple in 70 A.C.E., recent scholarship has questioned this dating. For example, John Noland, academic dean and lecturer in New Testament studies at Trinity College in Bristol, England believes that Matthew wrote his Gospel before the Jewish War that lead to the fall of Jerusalem. Noland, John, The Gospel of Matthew, The New International Greek Testament Commentary (c. 2005 Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.) p. 12. Noland notes that scholars dating the gospel after the Jewish War point to Matthew 22:7; Matthew 23:36-38 and Matthew 24:2 as reflecting memories of this traumatic event. However, given the strained political atmosphere of resentment toward Rome and the frequent and reckless insurgencies against Roman rule throughout the first century, it would not have been surprising that an astute observer like Jesus should have foreseen Jerusalem’s destruction as did Jeremiah in the years immediately before 587 B.C.E. Noland shares with most scholars the view that Matthew was dependent upon the Gospel of Mark and source material also available to Luke in constructing his own gospel. This means, of course, that both Mark and the source common to Matthew and Luke were also composed significantly earlier than most scholars assume. Consequently, the source material utilized by the gospel writers likely emerged during the life time of eye witness to Jesus life and ministry. It is conceivable also that the writers themselves were witnesses. If this is the case, we lose the historical gap between the gospel witness and the so called “Jesus of history.” While I still lean toward the majority view that Matthew post dates the Jewish War, I am keeping an open mind.
Matthew makes more specific citations to the Hebrew Scriptures than any of the other three gospels. This has led most scholars to conclude that his gospel is written for a Jewish Christian audience. Though the location of Matthew’s community cannot be determined with certainty, the prevailing view among New Testament scholars is that the community was located at Antioch in modern day Syria. Noland, supra, at 18. Though numerous attempts have been made to discern efforts on Matthew’s part to parallel his narrative of Jesus with Moses, the patriarchs or the people of Israel as a whole, none of them seem to hold up with any consistency. In my own humble opinion, Matthew was not attempting such a ridged comparison with any one particular Hebrew Scriptural narrative. Instead, he was intent on drenching his story of Jesus in Hebrew prophecy, employing numerous Old Testament parallels, citations and images in order to enrich Jesus’ portrait. Matthew portrays Jesus as a new Moses; a prophet in the tradition of Elijah; and a royal heir to the throne of David. In the end, though, none of these images is fully capable of containing him. Like the new wine poured into old wine skins, Jesus bursts through even the most powerful, eloquent and beautiful messianic images showing himself finally to be God’s only beloved Son.
There are many gospel events narrated only in the Gospel of Matthew. The coming of the Magi to the infant Jesus by the guidance of the star in the east which triggered the tragic slaughter of the innocents is found only in Matthew. Matthew alone has Jesus and his family sojourning in Egypt. Parables unique to Matthew include the story of the workers in the vineyard (Matthew 20:1-16); the story of the wise and foolish maidens (Matthew 25:1-13); and the account of the last judgment (Matthew 25:31-46). As we will see, these stories and parables help us understand Matthew’s particular focus as his witness to Jesus unfolds.
The gospel reading for Sunday calls upon the disciples to be prepared. I think that is the sum total of the message here. But for us that is frequently too little and too much. It is too little in the sense that we look for more to do than simply wait and hope. Literalist readers of the scripture turn the strange passages about those who are taken and those who are left in every which direction in an effort to figure out how and when the end of the world will come. Moreover, as Stanley Hauerwas points out, liberal progressive readers who have no use for mapping out the end times nevertheless assume that disciples of Jesus are capable of discerning the God intended direction history should take and use every means available to turn it in that direction. Hauerwas, Stanley, Matthew, Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible (c. 2006 by Stanley Hauerwas, Brozos Press) p. 204. In both cases, these readers are chasing the voices of false prophets claiming to know more than they do. The siren call of the false prophets would lure us away from following Jesus into a fruitless attempt to ferret out information that the Father has specifically withheld from us or goad us into a misguided seizure of the levers of political power in order to “make history come out right.”
“Both temptations-to employ Jesus’ apocalyptic imagery to predict the end time or to discern the movement of history-betray the character of Jesus’ training of his disciples. He is trying to teach them how they must live in the light of his coming. The dramatic character of apocalyptic language should help the disciples understand the challenge he presents to them. We, along with the disciples, make a disastrous mistake, however, if we allow our imaginations to be possessed by the images of apocalypse rather than by the one on whom these images are meant to focus our attention-that is, Jesus.” Hauerwas, supra, p. 205.
Verses 40-41 in which Jesus speaks of two men working in the field and two women grinding at the mill at the coming of the son of man, one of each being “taken” and the other “left,” figure prominently in the Left Behind novels by Tim Lehaye and Jerry B. Jenkins. Because I don’t believe in the “rapture,” I naturally do not believe that these verses have anything to do with that fanciful event. Standing alone, it is not even obvious from these verses whether it is more desirable to be taken than left behind. However, in the context of the previous discussion about Noah’s salvation through the Ark and Lot’s rescue from Sodom’s destruction, it seems likely to me that being “taken” is equivalent to salvation on the day of the Son of Man. The wise maidens whose faithful watching resulted in their being received into the wedding celebration is instructive as is the judgment in favor of all who practiced compassion toward their vulnerable neighbors and so found a welcome from the Son at the last day. (Matthew 25:1-13 and Matthew 25:31-46).