Tag Archives: Wilderness Wanderings

Toxic nostalgia; a poem by Miller Williams; and the lessons for Sunday, March 11, 2018

FOURTH SUNDAY IN LENT

Numbers 21:4-9
Psalm 107:1-3, 17-22
Ephesians 2:1-10
John 3:14-21

PRAYER OF THE DAY: O God, rich in mercy, by the humiliation of your Son you lifted up this fallen world and rescued us from the hopelessness of death. Lead us into your light, that all our deeds may reflect your love, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

“Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness?” Numbers 21:5.

Lately, Facebook seems to have been inundated with nostalgia posts. These are video feeds that walk you down memory lane into friendly neighborhoods of yore where nobody locked their doors, kids played stick ball, hopscotch, hide and seek all day on the sidewalks, in the streets and in vacant lots without supervision and nothing bad ever happened to them. These were the days when you could get a popsicle for a dime that broke in the center so you could share it with a friend. Teachers exercised discipline without fear of being sued and kids were all better behaved for it. Everyone respected the flag, loved their country and did their jobs without complaining. It was a happier, simpler time. These feeds usually end with an invitation to share if you concur with such sentiments. I never do.

I will admit that there is a part of my psyche that enjoys these posts. I can be as nostalgic as the next person for the things I miss-the hiss and crackle of vacuum tubes you heard when turning on the old radio. The television shows we watched in black and white with the living room curtains drawn because that was the only way we could see even an outline of what was on the screen. I miss the sound of the Puget Sound Naval Shipyard whistle that signaled the end of my Dad’s work shift, letting me know that he would soon be walking up the street from the bus stop. So naturally, I get warm and fuzzy feelings from being reminded of these relics of my past.

But there is a dark side of nostalgia as well. “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness?” the people of Israel demand of Moses indignantly. Their frustration is understandable. They have been experiencing the hardships of the wilderness for years. They have seen war, hunger and thirst. So hard is their lot that they yearn for Egypt, the land of bondage from which they had so recently been liberated. In their minds, Egypt was a land of plenty. “We remember the fish we ate in Egypt for nothing, the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions and the garlic.” Numbers 11:5. They seem to have forgotten, however, the Pharaoh’s cruel edict requiring them to expose their male children and leave them to die. They seem to have forgotten the cruel bondage from which they cried out for four hundred years to be delivered. It is all reminiscent of the song made famous in my youth by Barbara Streisand in the movie, The Way We Were: “Memories, may be beautiful and yet, what’s too painful to remember, we simply choose to forget.” Selective memory is a pernicious mental process that distorts the past, colors our perceptions of the present and darkens our outlook on the future. Nostalgia can tempt us to reject the day which the Lord has made in favor of what we deem to have been better days in the past. It can turn us away from the future into which God is calling us.

The nostalgia I see again and again on Facebook posts seems innocent enough on the surface, but it plays all too easily into the sinister myth of a golden age in America, an age to which we must return if we would prosper. It goes something like this: Once upon a time America was great. Once upon a time a man was the king of his castle, the master of his home. It was a time when doctors, lawyers, senators and state representatives were men-white men to be specific. There was a time when everyone knew what it meant to be a man and women knew-and accepted-what it meant to be a woman. There was a time when people of color knew their place in America-and were happy to stay there. It was a time when businesses closed on Sundays, sports leagues ceased their activities and the only people on the street were those on their way to church. There was a time when the way a man chose to keep his family in line was his own business and he didn’t have to concern himself with visits from the police, nosy social workers or child protective services. There was a time when just wars were the only ones America ever fought and America always won. This was an America where opportunities abounded for anyone willing to work and there was no explanation for failure or poverty except laziness and dishonesty.

You will object that, in fact, no such America ever existed. You are correct. But this is a myth and myths need not be true. They need only be credible and credibility requires a low standard of proof. Older white men like me who see their America slipping away, who see a new diverse generation of young people far more at home in a developing world of computers, cross-cultural relationships, a changing economy and a job market requiring skills we don’t have are particularly vulnerable to seduction by this toxic nostalgia for a country that never was. We feel as though we are losing control, that our knowledge and expertise is not valued, that our beliefs and convictions are being disregarded and our positions of privilege are slipping away. We sense that we are growing old, becoming less relevant and approaching death. All of that is true, by the way. God is doing a new thing-and we don’t like it!

The Trump campaign deftly exploited this white, male rage making the 2016 election into a referendum on the demographic future of America.[1] It tapped into the white man’s visceral fear that his Norman Rockwell America is evolving into an increasingly feminist, multi-racial, multi-lingual, multi-cultural, multi-religious melting pot that he no longer recognizes as home. Trump’s handlers understood the deep-seated panic felt by white men when they hear that the white population will lose its majority status sometime between 2040 and 2050 and witness the increasing strength of women and people of color in business, entertainment and government. It should have come as no surprise that Trump’s berating women as “fat pigs” and “dogs” won him howls of approval from his white male base. Nor is it surprising that few in that base seemed at all concerned about their candidate’s sordid history of discrimination in his real estate developments or his derogatory remarks about Mexicans. To the contrary, they freely admit that his attractiveness stems from his willingness to say out loud what they are thinking.

Seen in this light, it is easy to understand the appeal of Trump’s claim that some “deep state” made up of liberals is really controlling the country. It is easy to see why universities are perceived as centers for “brainwashing” young people and scientists are regularly dismissed as white coated, God denying, America hating agents of the left. As preposterous as these notions might be, they make sense of the white man’s fears and put a face on the menace threatening him. Donald Trump validates the white man’s rage in a way that no other candidate in the field was able to do. He speaks their language and addresses their fears in ways that they can understand. His call for “making America great again,” taking us back to a simpler and happier time is understandably appealing to his base. In reality, however, this toxic nostalgia is the opiate ever threatening to derail the people of God and lure them back into captivity. Whatever direction America may take, disciples of Jesus must resist the temptation to look for salvation in the past.

We worship a forward-looking God. That does not mean that everything new, everything contemporary and everything promising change is necessarily good. It does mean, however, that today is the hand we have been dealt and we are not at liberty to throw it down and walk away from the table. It means that the future, however dark and threatening it can sometimes appear, is God’s future, the trajectory of which is determined by the resurrection of Jesus Christ. The end of all things is the reign of God which, whether we like it or not, takes in peoples of every tribe, tongue and nation. Our movement must ever be forward toward that goal, journeying hopefully, faithfully and confidently-not in our plans, programs, politics or ideology, but in the promise that, as Christ has died and has risen, Christ will come again.

Here is a poem by Miller Williams about history and forward-looking hope eschewing the lure of nostalgia.

Of History and Hope

We have memorized America,
how it was born and who we have been and where.
In ceremonies and silence we say the words,
telling the stories, singing the old songs.
We like the places they take us. Mostly we do.
The great and all the anonymous dead are there.
We know the sound of all the sounds we brought.
The rich taste of it is on our tongues.
But where are we going to be, and why, and who?
The disenfranchised dead want to know.
We mean to be the people we meant to be,
to keep on going where we meant to go.

But how do we fashion the future? Who can say how
except in the minds of those who will call it Now?
The children. The children. And how does our garden grow?
With waving hands—oh, rarely in a row—
and flowering faces. And brambles, that we can no longer allow.

Who were many people coming together
cannot become one people falling apart.
Who dreamed for every child an even chance
cannot let luck alone turn doorknobs or not.
Whose law was never so much of the hand as the head
cannot let chaos make its way to the heart.
Who have seen learning struggle from teacher to child
cannot let ignorance spread itself like rot.
We know what we have done and what we have said,
and how we have grown, degree by slow degree,
believing ourselves toward all we have tried to become—
just and compassionate, equal, able, and free.

All this in the hands of children, eyes already set
on a land we never can visit—it isn’t there yet—
but looking through their eyes, we can see
what our long gift to them may come to be.
If we can truly remember, they will not forget.

Miller Williams (1930-2015) was an American Poet, editor, critic, and translator born in Hoxie, Arkansas to a Methodist pastor. He was honored as the country’s third inaugural poet, reading the above poem at the start of former President Bill Clinton’s second term. Williams earned a Bachelor of Science in biology from Arkansas State University and an Masters in zoology from the University of Arkansas. He taught college science for many years before securing a job in the English department at LSU with the support of his friend, the noted author, Flannery O’Connor. Williams has written, translated, or edited over thirty books, including a dozen poetry collections. You can read more about Miller Williams and sample more of his poetry at the Poetry Foundation website.

Source: Some Jazz A While: Collected Poems, (c. 1999 by Miller Williams; pub. by University of Illinois Press).

Numbers 21:4-9

Numbers is the fourth book of the “Five Scrolls” or “Pentateuch,” sometimes referred to as the Five Books of Moses. Its title comes from the English translation of the Greek title, “Arithmoi,” given to the book in the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures). I am guessing the name “Numbers” stems from the first several chapters of the book which narrate a census of each of the twelve Israelite tribes, family by family. The Hebrew Scriptures use the title “Bemidbar” which means “in the wilderness” and aptly describes the content of this book narrating Israel’s forty years of wandering between the Exodus from Egypt and her entry into the land of Canaan. During this period the generation of Israelites that left Egypt with Moses and Aaron died and was succeeded by a new generation. From the old generation, only Moses and Joshua remain alive at the close of Numbers. It is clear that Joshua, not Moses, will lead this new generation into the land of Canaan. Throughout this period, the people are faced with numerous challenges that put their faith in God to the test. Though the faithfulness of Israel is often less than adequate, God remains steadfast from beginning to end.

Our lesson begins with the people of Israel setting out on a new leg of their journey following a victory over the Canaanite king of Arad. Arad was a Canaanite city of the Negeb located in present day Tell Arad, Israel. Its ruins consist of a large mound containing potsherds indicating that Arad was first occupied in the 4th Century B.C.E. The site is about fifty miles north of Kadish where Israel remained encamped for extended periods of time.

After this battle, the people set out from Mt. Hor (precise location of which is unknown) and take the “way of the Red Sea.” The Hebrew actually reads “reed sea,” but it is likely that the Red Sea is intended here. This road, which begins at Ezion-geber at the tip of the Gulf of Aqaba, would have taken Israel to the west of Edom rather than through it, the objective set forth in the text. Vs. 4. It is at this point that the people become discouraged, complain against Moses and even against God. They go so far as to call the manna with which God has been feeding them “this miserable food,” food to which the Psalms refer as “the bread of angels.” Psalm 78:25. Vs. 5. God responds by sending “fiery serpents” among the people, translated by the NRSV as “poisonous serpents.” The assumption seems to be that the serpents are merely a species of snake with a bite that causes a burning sensation. That would comport with our 19th Century penitent for interpreting the scriptures in such a way as not to violate cannons of the Enlightenment. But despite these noble efforts at ridding the Hebrew Scriptures of primitive supernaturalism, the problem remains. Not only are we lacking any known species of near eastern reptile capable of inflicting such a bite, but we are also faced with the biological reality that no snake of any kind travels in large groups. (When was the last time you saw a herd of snakes?) Nor do snakes typically attack without significant provocation.

More likely than not, the serpents were understood by the narrator, not as any known species of snake, but as one of the many mythical creatures thought to inhabit the desert, such as the “flying serpent” referenced in Isaiah 30:6. In any event, the creatures, whatever they are, were sent by God to punish Israel’s faithless complaining. Recognizing their sin, the people repent and turn to Moses for aid. As he has so often done before, Moses intercedes with God for the sake of Israel. Vs. 7.

What follows is truly fascinating and, in some respects, difficult to understand. God instructs Moses to fashion a bronze serpent and elevate it on a pole-seemingly a direct violation of the First Commandment (or the Second, depending on how one numbers them): “You shall not make for yourself a graven image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth…” Exodus 20:4Deuteronomy 5:8. The serpent, though greatly feared, was nevertheless a common symbol of healing and fertility. One wonders why Moses would be instructed to create such a symbol as an instrument of healing where it could so easily lead to idolatrous worship. Indeed, according to II Kings this very consequence occurred necessitating King Hezekiah’s destruction of the very same bronze serpent centuries later. II Kings 18:4.

Of course, the Abrahamic religions have always had ambivalent feelings about images. Islam forbids absolutely any image of God (Allah) and discourages (in varying degrees) images of any creature. Similarly, Christianity has vacillated between the extremes of icon adoration and iconoclasm. The danger of images is nowhere better illustrated than in our consistent depictions of God as male. Though one would be hard pressed to make from the scriptures the case for a gendered God, Christian art could hardly lead you to any different conclusion. Our images invariably turn out to be limited by our own cultural, sociological and ideological biases and therefore limiting in their portrayal of the God we claim to worship.

That said, it seems we cannot do without images. When we are physically forbidden to make them, our imagination continues to manufacture images. Moreover, the doctrine of the Incarnation affirms that the Word of God became flesh (John 1:14) and even that Jesus Christ is “the image of the invisible God…” Colossians 1:15. Our liturgy urges us to adore the Word made visible in Jesus that we might learn to love the God we cannot see. We are imaginative creatures who comprehend our universe by means of images.

Some years ago, I was very taken with a painting of the presentation of the infant Jesus at the temple in Jerusalem. The painting was by a Mexican artist whose depiction of the temple’s architecture along with the dress of Mary, Joseph, Simeon and Anna was with imagery drawn from his own cultural environment. I clipped a copy of this painting out of the magazine in which I found it. Some weeks later, I found the same biblical scene portrayed in an early Byzantine wall mural in National Geographic. I clipped this one also and put it into the same shoebox with the other print. I now have about half a dozen such portrayals of the Presentation. Singly, they are time bound, parochial and culturally circumscribed. In their plurality, they reflect from multiple dimensions a miracle too beautiful and magnificent for any single imagination to contain. They represent the impact of a marvelous narrative as it rolls through the ages gathering meaning as a snowball gathers mass. The difference between an icon and an idol is simply this: the idol points only to itself limiting the God it would represent to the confines of a single image, whereas the icon points beyond itself to that which is finally beyond imagination.

Psalm 107:1-3, 17-22

This is a psalm of praise. Verse 22 suggests that it was sung by the faith community before a sacrifice of thanksgiving. That the worshipers are “gathered from the lands, from the east and from the west, from the north and from the south” (Vs. 3) suggests that this psalm was composed after the Babylonian Exile and the rebuilding of the temple in Jerusalem. Though some of the exiled Jews returned home to Palestine, most of the Jewish population remained scattered throughout the Mediterranean world, making pilgrimages to Jerusalem on high holy days. Such pilgrim journeys were fraught with dangers, escape from which was one of many occasions for thanksgiving.

Our reading jumps from the introductory verses 1-3 to verse 17 stating that some of the worshipers now giving thanks had become “sick” through their sinful ways. The Hebrew is obscure at this point. Some translations of the Hebrew Scriptures favor the alternative reading: “some were fools, they took to rebellious ways.” New English Bible. Given this ambiguity, we are left to ponder whether the persons described here were rescued from sickness brought on by their rebelliousness or from their rebellious ways otherwise destructive to their wellbeing. Verse 18 stating that these individuals were so affected as to become “sickened” at the sight of food is merely figurative. It means little more than that food brought them no pleasure and that they had no appetite. Thus, there is no definitive indication that sickness is the affliction from which these worshipers were delivered. Rogerson, J.W. and McKay, J.W., Psalms 101-150, The Cambridge Bible Commentary (c. 1977 Cambridge University Press) p. 52; but see Weiser, Artur, The Psalms: A Commentary, The Old Testament Library (c. 1962 S.C.M. Press, Ltd.) p. 687 for a contrary view.

In verse 18 we are told that the worshipers “drew near to the gate of death.” The psalmist pictures death as a city drawing the hapless traveler into its fatal orbit. Again, the interpretation depends on our rendering of verse 17. In a world without much in the way of medicine and where illness was poorly understood, many of the sicknesses we view as non-life threatening brought fear and foreboding. Every sickness was a reminder of human mortality as it might well progress to something much worse than first appeared. So, too, bad choices can bring a person to ruin from which there seems no way of return. In either case, we are invited to glorify the God of Israel for turning even these seemingly hopeless circumstances into occasions for the exercise of God’s saving power.

God “sent his word” at verse 20 can be understood at several different levels. At the most superficial level it can be understood as a word of rebuke (assuming that the affliction is foolishness) or of encouragement (assuming the affliction to be illness). The bringer of the word can be linked to the word in such a way as to be an extension of that word. This notion of angelic intervention applies to help in the form of natural elements that serve as God’s “angels” or angelic beings serving at God’s behest. In later Judaism and in the New Testament, the word often became identified with God’s self. See John 1:1.

As always, I encourage you to read Psalm 107 in its entirety. This marvelous hymn recounts God’s faithfulness and salvation through the lenses of many differing human situations of want and need. In every case we are invited to “thank the Lord for his steadfast love, for his wonderful works to the sons of men.” Vs. 21.

Ephesians 2:1-10

“Dead through trespasses and sins” “following the prince of the power of the air” –how are we to make sense of these terms? To understand what Paul and his followers meant by this terminology, it helps to understand the context in which they lived and worked. The Roman Empire was the overriding and dominating presence throughout the Mediterranean world in the 1st Century. Under its reign society was rigidly and hierarchically ordered with the emperor at the apex and slaves making up the base of its pyramid of power. How you regarded and treated others in your life was dictated by your assigned place in this order. Jewett, Robert, Romans-A Commentary, Harmenia-A Critical and Historical Commentary on the Bible (c. 2007 by Fortress Press) p. 49 and the citation to Lendon, J.E., Empire of Honour: The Art of Government in the Roman World (c. 1997 by Oxford: Clarendon) pp. 289-292. For Paul and his associates, this way of “walking” (Vs. 1) is sinful by definition. As a Jew, Paul understood God as the one who liberated Israel from slavery for a life of freedom in covenant with God. As a disciple of Jesus, Paul believed that genuine divine power does not manifest itself top down through the imperial hierarchy, but from bottom up through the faithful life, obedient death and glorious resurrection of the Christ. Jesus topples Rome’s pyramid uniting into a single people persons of all nations, all classes and all races. Of this people, Jesus Christ, not Caesar is Lord. There is no hierarchy in this new people, but only a diversity of gifts exercised for the building up of the Body of Christ. Ephesians 4:11-16. This is the good work in which disciples of Jesus are called to walk. Vs. 10.

I believe Paul would have recognized much that was familiar to him in the United States of America. Though surely saddened, I doubt Paul would be shocked to discover that elections are bought by powerful corporate interests, that wealth is overwhelmingly concentrated in the hands of a very few while a growing sector of the population lacks even the basic necessities of life. I don’t think Paul would be shocked to find African American neighborhoods patrolled by an overwhelmingly white police department that looks far more like an occupation force than a public service. I think that Paul would recognize “the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience” (Vs. 2) every bit as much in our age as in his own.

What I am not sure Paul would recognize is the presence of the church in the midst of such a world as ours. Would Paul recognize a church that is so thoroughly woven into the cultural and economic fabric of our domination society that it blends naturally into the Americana landscape? Would Paul recognize as the meeting place of Christ’s Body a locked building with a “No Trespassing” sign over the door? Would Paul see in our still highly segregated Sunday mornings the descendants of his churches? Would Paul find any disciples of Jesus engaged in the good works in which they are called to “walk.”? Vs. 10.

Our failure to appreciate the extent to which the church’s very existence challenged the legitimacy of Rome’s culture of domination has compromised our preaching of this and other Pauline texts. As a result, our pastors, teachers and bishops remain largely blind to the dangerous, toxic mix of nationalism and deviant Christianity that constitutes so much of what has, ironically I think, been called evangelical Christianity and its insidious infiltration of our churches. See my post of July 26, 2017.

John 3:14-21

For some background on the larger context of this brief snippet from John’s gospel, my post from Sunday, March 16, 2014. Suffice to say that Jesus is engaged in a conversation with Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews, who has come to him by night. Nicodemus, having been told that no one can enter the Kingdom of God without being “born from above” mistakenly believes that Jesus means he must be born all over again-a seeming impossibility. When Jesus explains that entering the Kingdom is not so much a re-birth as it is a new birthing by God’s adoption of us through the Spirit, Nicodemus is still mystified. Jesus then says to Nicodemus what we have in our lesson for Sunday: “No one has ascended into heaven but he who descended from heaven, the Son of man. And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.” Vss. 13-15.

As pointed out by one prominent commentator, the words “in him” are associated with eternal life rather than with “believe.” Thus, “whoever believes, in him may have eternal life” is the preferred rendering. Barrett, C.K., The Gospel According to St. John, Second Ed. (c. C.K. Barrett, pub. by Westminster Press) p. 179; accord, Marsh, John Saint John, The Pelican New Testament Commentaries (c. John Marsh, pub. by Penguin Books, Ltd.) p. 187. Belief is not the engine of salvation unto eternal life. As Martin Luther points out, “the trust and faith of the heart alone make both God and an idol.” The Large Catechism of Martin Luther, published in The Book of Concord, edit. Theodore G. Tappert (c. 1959 by Fortress Press) p. 365. Eternal life is given in Jesus, the Word that evokes and directs faith toward himself. To read this verse in any other way suggests that faith is a precondition for God’s mercy rather than the heartfelt response to such mercy.

“Eternal life” is a term frequently used throughout the fourth gospel, though the other gospels use it occasionally as well. While used in Jewish and Christian literature to speak of life in the new age to come, John uses it in a more expansive way. For John, eternal life begins when one believes in Jesus. “And this is eternal life,” says Jesus, “that they know thee the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom thou hast sent.” John 17:3. Through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, the eternal life Jesus shares with the Father is mediated to the disciples. John 16:13-15. It is critical to emphasize John’s present tense lest eternal life be misunderstood as a distant hope realized only after death.

It is important to remember also that the Greek texts do not contain punctuation. Thus, the decision to end the quote from Jesus at verse 15, as does the RSV, is an editorial decision. The NRSV continues the quotation up to verse 21. Commentators are split on this point. For example, Professor Raymond Brown sides with the NRSV. Brown, Raymond E., The Gospel According to John I-XII, The Anchor Bible Commentary (c. 1966 by Doubleday) p. 149. Professor Lightfoot, however, would end the quote at verse 15. Lightfoot, R.H., St. John’s Gospel (c. 1960 by Oxford University Press) p. 118. I lean toward the NRSV rendering on this point. I see no compelling reason not to extend the quote up to verse 21 and so accept John 3:16 as Jesus’ pronouncement. “All Jesus’ words come to us through the channels of the evangelist’s understanding and rethinking, but the Gospel [of John] presents Jesus as speaking and not the evangelist.” Brown, supra, at 149. With this in mind, it is possible to read John 3:16 not as a doctrinal proposition, but as Jesus’ proclamation of his reconciling mission to us.

“God so love the world” Vs. 16. The word “world” is important. When I was in confirmation, my pastor encouraged us to substitute our own names in place of “world” when reciting this well-known verse. While I appreciate that he was trying to help us personalize Jesus’ ministry, there is a danger in such particularization. For too long the church has held a narrow, individualistic view of salvation. It is as though God were trying to save as many passengers as possible from the deck of a sinking ship. This wicked world is on cruise ship destined for hell. But faith is the lifeboat that can get you safely off the ship before she goes down. God, however, is determined to save the ship. “The earth is the Lord’s” the psalm tells us. Psalm 24:1. God is not conceding one inch of it to the devil. For this reason, our own individual salvation is inextricably bound up with the salvation of the rivers, forests, animals, the hungry, the oppressed and the oppressor.

The “sending” of the Son into the world as an expression of God’s love points in two directions. Vs. 16. First, it points to the miracle of the Incarnation. John treats this in his poetic prologue at John 1:1-18. It is important to understand that incarnation, the dwelling of God with humankind, has been the intent of God from the “beginning,” that is, before creation, the fall into sin and its consequences. The constant refrain throughout the prophets is “I will be their God and they shall be my people.” That refrain is echoed in the Book of Revelation where this divine desire is finally fulfilled. Revelation 21:3-4.

Second, the sending of the Son points forward to the cross-the price God is prepared to pay for dwelling in our midst, for becoming flesh that can be torn, broken and pierced by nails. This desire of God to dwell among us at the cost of God’s only beloved Son is the measure of divine love. Such love takes shape in our lives when we become passionate about God’s reign or, to use John’s language, when we enter into eternal life which we might well render life that is eternally significant. To believe in the resurrection is to believe that the God Jesus lived and died for is real; that the salvation he offers the world is worth living for and even dying for.

Jesus continues by telling us that he has been sent not to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him. Vs. 17. Yet condemnation there surely will be. “He who does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God.” Vs. 18. Often there is a twofold reaction to Jesus in the gospel of John placing in stark relief the response of faith to that of rejection and unbelief. It is not that Jesus himself judges any person. Rather, “the idea is that Jesus brings out what a man really is and the real nature of his life. Jesus is a penetrating light that provokes judgment by making it apparent what a man is.” Brown, supra, pp. 148-149. For, “this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil.” Vs. 19. This applies to all persons across the board. The question is how one responds to this judgment. Does one say “yes” to the judgment upon his or her life and turn from death to “eternal life” as we have defined it? Or does one shun the light, continue in sin and cause the judgment to become condemnation? In sum, this passage presupposes an encounter with Jesus such as is occurring with Nicodemus in our lesson. It should not be lifted out of this context and employed for speculation about who will or will not finally be saved.

One final observation: for all the dualism in this text-light vs. darkness; belief vs. unbelief; and knowledge vs. ignorance-terms which seem to mandate that one choose one side or the other, Nicodemus remains an ambiguous character throughout John’s gospel. He appears briefly in Chapter 7 when he questions his fellow members of the council about their rush to judgment on Jesus and his ministry. John 7:50-51. We meet him again after Jesus’ crucifixion as he goes with Joseph of Arimathea to give Jesus a proper burial. John 19:38-42. John seems to recognize that there is a twilight zone between darkness and light; belief and unbelief; understanding and ignorance. In this zone faith struggles to be born.

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[1] In November of 2008, for the first time in history, an election was not decided principally by white men. In the first election in which a major party candidate was an African American, the white vote went decisively in favor of John McCain over Barak Obama to the tune of twelve percentage points. But this clear win in America’s still biggest demographic could not offset overwhelming support among Hispanic, African American and Asian voters coupled with a substantial edge among women and the near unanimous support of the LGBTQ communities. The hope of white voters that the Obama victory was an historical fluke that would soon be erased once the panic generated by the recession of that era faded was dashed by Mr. Obama’s substantial electoral and popular victory over Mitt Romney in 2012. Though Mr. Romney won the white vote by ten percentage points, Mr. Obama’s support among minorities and women again carried the day. The electorate twice defied the will of the white man to put an African American in the White House-and white, male America was mad as hell about it. See Roper reports for 2008 and 2012.

Sunday, September 27

EIGHTEENTH SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST

Numbers 11:4-6, 10-16, 24-29
Psalm 19:7-14
James 5:13-20
Mark 9:38-50

Prayer of the Day: Generous God, your Son gave his life that we might come to peace with you. Give us a share of your Spirit, and in all we do empower us to bear the name of Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.

Our lessons have a lot to say about leadership and how it is exercised by the people of God. That is a timely concern as our country awaits the visit of Pope Francis while trying to make sense out of that reality show we call the presidential primaries. What do we look for in a leader? How does one lead effectively? What is this thing we call “authority”? Who has it?

Judging by the polling data, we seem to respect a leader who is decisive, knows what s/he believes and is not afraid to express it-as long as we like what we hear. So a candidate running for elected office needs to walk a fine line avoiding a kind of soft-spokenness that might suggest weakness or indecision on the one hand and an outspokenness that is perceived as rude and offensive on the other. The trouble with the electoral process is that it often gives us leaders shaped by us into what we want rather than leaders capable of taking us where we need to be. How effective can one be as a leader after obtaining his/her office through following the very ones s/he is supposed to lead?

A key constituent of leadership is authority-not to be confused with power. The former makes a great leader, the latter, standing alone, makes only a dictator. Authority is frequently found among the powerless. Though Jesus had no official teaching status (as far as we know) and held no political office, his hearers recognized that he taught “as one having authority, and not as their scribes.” Matthew 7:29. What was it, then, about Jesus that made his word authoritative? I believe it boils down to one word: integrity. Jesus’ actions were so thoroughly in harmony with his words that, as Saint John would say, Jesus was his Word. John 1:1.

Being a leader sometimes means you have to tell people things they don’t want to hear-and not just the people you know will never vote for you anyway. Truth has to be spoken to your strongest supporters, your most committed followers, your most trusted friends. You have to keep reminding the people of your vision and what is required of them to achieve it long after its novelty and freshness has worn thin. As Moses is beginning to learn in our first lesson, it is hard to lead when the Promised Land is forty years away and your constituents want results yesterday. In our gospel lesson Jesus is finding that leading his fractious, power hungry and self-centered disciples is a little like herding cats. James urges us to lead those who are wandering from the community of faith back home again. Leadership is not an easy task. It calls for more than sound judgment, careful discernment and prudent action. People will finally be lead only by those they trust. That is why leadership begins with “followership.” Unless and until we are prepared to walk in the footsteps of Jesus, it is unlikely anyone will heed our call to take that difficult road.

Pope Francis offers a welcome contrast to the noisy clamor for votes we have been forced to endure the last several months. Here is a man who has consistently refused the luxuries that typically come with his office. Francis’ determination to be among the people (much to the consternation of our security forces) demonstrates the same willingness to be vulnerable that he calls upon the nations of the world to exercise in receiving refugees fleeing war and starvation in the Middle East. His frank talk about our country’s consumerism, inequality and violence will no doubt make us uncomfortable and perhaps a bit angry. But the Pope does not need or seek our votes. He seeks instead our hearts for Jesus. Now that’s what I call authority!

Numbers 11:4-6, 10-16, 24-29

The Book of Numbers is the fourth of the five books of Moses commonly referred to as the Pentateuch. Modern biblical research has reached a general consensus that the Pentateuch is the product of four sources and perhaps several editors. For a thorough discussion of this theory, see this article on the Documentary Hypothesis. The title, “Numbers” comes from the Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures known as the Septuagint. It was no doubt inspired by the census of the Hebrew tribes narrated in the early part of the book. The Hebrew Bible uses the title “bemidar” which means “In the wilderness.” In fact, the book as a whole narrates the journey of Israel through the wilderness from Egypt to the land of Canaan. For a more thorough outline of Numbers, see the Summary Article by Fred Gaiser, Professor of Old Testament at Luther Seminary, Saint Paul, MN on enterthebible.org.

This lesson brings back family memories-not of a good sort. Make no mistake about it, I love the family in which I grew up. I think my parents did a wonderful job raising me and my siblings. I enjoyed doing things with my family for the most part. Family vacations constitute one of the few exceptions to that rule. We never went to Disneyland or any comparable place when we took the two weeks of vacation to which my father was entitled each year. Instead, we drove out from Bremerton, Washington to Iowa to visit my aunt and uncle, stopping in Montana along the way to see another uncle and aunt. This was before air conditioning was standard equipment for cars and long before digital technology transformed the back seat into rolling entertainment center. We traveled in a Chevy station wagon, my younger sister and me sitting all the way in the back on a seat facing the rear. There were no seat belts and they probably would not have been much help anyway if we had been rear ended. Before we had gotten halfway through Washington State my sister and I were already whining: “When will we get there? We have to go to the bathroom! We’re hungry! How much longer do we have to drive? Why do we have to go on this stupid trip? Why can’t we just stay home?” Multiply that by several thousand voices and forty years and perhaps you can begin to appreciate Moses’ dilemma.

The people are angry. They have been travelling for a long time eating food that is unfamiliar to them. They don’t know where they are going or when they will get there. They have to rely upon Moses to give them that information and it appears that Moses is not altogether clear on the future either. So they complain. “Come on Moses! You told us that you were leading us to a good land! You told us we would live as a free people in our own country. But so far, all we can see is this wilderness that can’t support us. We have to survive by scrapping our bread off the desert floor. When are you going to deliver on your promises Moses? How long do we have to wait?”

Moses is angry too-at God. “Why have you treated your servant so badly? Why have I not found favor in your sight, that you lay the burden of all this people on me? Did I conceive all this people? Did I give birth to them, that you should say to me, ‘Carry them in your bosom, as a nurse carries a sucking child,’ to the land that you promised on oath to their ancestors? Where am I to get meat to give to all this people?” Vss. 11-13.

I think everyone who has ever served as a church leader knows how Moses feels. “Am I the only one here that sees what needs to be done? Is mine the only number in the church directory? Why does everyone always call me for every little thing that goes wrong down at the church? Do I have to do it all?” Now I think we need to stop here and reflect on Moses’ complaint. In fact, God did not lay the burden of all the people on Moses. Moses assumed that burden himself. Has Moses forgotten that it was God whose mighty works brought Pharaoh to his knees? Does Moses really believe that God expects him to “carry the people in his bosom?” Was it not God who has been carrying the people thus far? Moses should know that this liberation project is God’s, not his own. God is the one responsible for getting Israel to the Promised Land. Moses’ job is simply to lead the people in taking the next step.

Part of Moses’ problem, too, is that he has come to believe he is indispensable. He has convinced himself that no one is capable of leadership except him. Of course, when you assume responsibility for everything, you wind up taking the heat for everything. No human being can remain sane for long under that kind of pressure. God knows that. That is why God does not expect any of us to shoulder the load when it comes to mission and ministry.

Moses discovers that the people, who he has been seeing as the problem, are actually the solution. Moses learns that he is not indispensable, that there are other persons with prophetic gifts capable of sharing his responsibility of embodying God’s vision for Israel. Of course, that means Moses has to let go of some of his authority. That is not always an easy thing for leaders. Most of us leaders are convinced that nobody can do things as well as we can. Most of us leaders are convinced that our way is “the” right way. The notion that God might be leading through the insight and knowledge of someone else is threatening to us. So sharing leadership is a little frightening. Moses, to his credit, is willing to take the risk of sharing his authority. He is secure enough in his leadership role to recognize the prophetic voice of God even when it is spoken outside of “official channels.” When Joshua reports to Moses that there are two men prophesying that were not among the seventy that he “properly ordained,” Moses tells him not to fret about it. Instead, rejoice that the generosity of the Spirit is bigger than our imagination and more expansive than our organizational structures. Vss. 26-29.

This lesson serves to remind us that the church is not made up of leaders and followers. It is made up of a communion of saints each having his or her own unique gifts for building up the Body of Christ. So leadership in the church is never a question of “who is in charge.” Rather, it is always a question of how best to recognize each person’s unique gifts and to order our life together in such a way as to enable, encourage and support the exercise of those gifts for mission and ministry.

Psalm 19:7-14

The first six verses of Psalm 19 praise God for God’s self-revelation in the wonders of the natural world, the heavens, the forests and fields. The second half of the Psalm, which is our text for Sunday, focuses on God’s self-revelation in Torah, the teachings of the scriptures. “By them also is your servant enlightened, and in keeping them there is great reward.”  Vs. 11. This is not to say, of course, that God rewards people who are obedient to the law with approval or that people who keep the law are somehow immune from suffering or bad fortune. Meditation on the scriptures is its own reward. By so doing, we are drawn closer to God and deeper into the heart of God. By internalizing the scriptures, we give the Holy Spirit a powerful tool for transforming us into the image of Christ. That is why I continue to recommend reading two psalms per day, one in the morning and one at night.

The psalm concludes with a prayer: “Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O LORD, my strength and my redeemer.” Vs. 14. These words remind us of the admonitions of James the last few Sundays regarding the use of our tongues and the responsibility of being teachers in all that we do and say. This would be a good prayer to repeat each morning before we have had a chance to speak to anyone. It is a reminder that wherever we are, we are always in the presence of Jesus.

James 5:13-20

“The prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective.” Vs. 16. Over the years, there have been several studies done in the medical community to measure the “effectiveness” of prayer for people who are sick. The results have been inconclusive. At best, some data suggests that where people are supported by a praying community, they tend to experience a faster and more thorough recovery. Other test results suggest that people who are the object of prayer feel a sort of “obligation” to recover. Because setbacks in recovery might be interpreted as a lack of faith or divine support, knowing that one is being prayed for might actually hinder recovery.

Obviously, the problem here is our understanding of effectiveness. If the measure is simply recovery of the sick person we are praying for from his or her disease, that measure is flawed. Eventually, all of us will suffer an illness or accident from which we will not recover. No amount of prayer will save us from our mortality. Consequently, I don’t believe we can take James to mean that prayer always results in healing the sick. Moreover, James tells us that when we pray for the sick person, the Lord will raise him or her up and forgive his or her sins. Vs. 15. Is “raising up” synonymous with healing? It may be so in some circumstances, but not all. Recall that Paul prayed three times for the removal of a “thorn in the side” that he felt was hindering his ministry. We do not know whether that was a physical ailment, but the point is that God did not remove the thorn. Instead, Paul was left to work around it and, in so doing, he discovered that God’s strength was sufficient for his weakness. Indeed, God was able to use Paul’s infirmity to strengthen his faith and deepen his ministry.

Prayer is more than making requests and seeing them answered. One of my predecessors here at Trinity, Rev. Stephen Bouman, recently said that “lament” is that space between what should be and what is. I like that. I believe that prayer often has a dimension of lament where we struggle with a reality that seems to cast doubt on God’s love for us and commitment to our wellbeing. It is in that struggle that we finally arrive at the place where God would have us be. It is perhaps not the place we hoped to arrive at. It is probably much different than what we expected salvation to look like. But it turns out to be a good place nonetheless because it is the place where Jesus brings us.

Mark 9:38-50

The first part of this Gospel lesson is strikingly similar to the interchange between Joshua and Moses in our first lesson. James and John come upon a man who is doing the work of exorcism in Jesus’ name. He is not one of the Twelve or any of the disciples commissioned by Jesus. So James and John put a stop to his ministry because, “he was not following us.” Notice the pronoun “us.” The disciples do not say that this man was not following Jesus, but only that he was not with them. In modern parlance, we might say that this man was not “properly ordained” or “approved by the credentialing committee” or “on the clergy roster of any Synod of this church.”  Now we need to be careful here. As I said before, the church is not a community of leaders and followers. It is a communion of saints each of whom is given gifts for building up the Body of Christ. As one who has experienced firsthand the destructive power of ecclesiastical regulations and guidelines that operate to crush opportunities for ministry that don’t fit into narrowly defined understandings of how ministry is to be done, I resonate to Jesus’ admonition here. Do not stop someone from exercising his or her gifts for ministry just because they don’t fit into any predetermined pattern. Rather, examine the pattern to see what must be transformed so that this gift of ministry might be gratefully accepted and integrated into the full Body of Christ.

Still and all, a call to ministry is never merely a matter of individual choice. It is the Body of Christ, the communion of saints that must help each person discern, develop and exercise his or her gifts for ministry. I might be entirely wrong about what my gifts and abilities are. I may be immature and inexperienced in my exercise of those gifts. I am always in need of the church’s guidance, encouragement and discipline in the exercise of ministry. That goes not only for pastoral ministry but for all ministries in the church-music, education, stewardship, administration, etc. Nobody’s office in the church is above the discipline and admonition of the church.

What follows is one of the few instances in which Jesus preaches hellfire. Whoever causes one of these “little ones” who believe in Jesus to fall will have hell to pay. Vss. 42-48. Is this a continuation of Jesus’ teaching last week to the effect that there is nothing greater in the kingdom of God than to receive a child? Or is it a further response to James and John for their suppression of the exorcist? I think it might be a little of both. The lectionary readings from last week began with the question: “Who is the greatest?” Jesus first tells the disciples that to be great in the kingdom of God, there is no nobler task than receiving a child. Under this standard, moms, babysitters and nursery school teachers will be elevated over presidents, generals, captains of industry, bishops, pastors and seminary professors. How does one lead with greatness in the kingdom of God? Well, certainly not by suppressing the work of other people who are exercising the power of that kingdom under the poor excuse that they don’t have the proper credentials. Rather, greatness requires keeping the borders of the church porous, hazy and in flux so that it will be capable of receiving the gifts of the Spirit wherever they are manifest.

Exercising the worldly greatness of hierarchy in the church is a crime against the Body of Christ. It ignores Jesus’ dictum that the last are first and the first last. It imports methods, values and structures into the life of the church that are antithetical to the ways of the Spirit. In the name of exercising authority for the sake of the church, people acting under such a false understanding of greatness actually stifle the work of the church, hinder the Spirit of God and undermine the church’s witness to Jesus.

The term “salted with fire” is obscure and the subject of debate by many commentators. Vs. 49. Though it is possible that purification by persecution is intended, that hardly fits the context. To have salt is to be at peace. Vs. 50. It would therefore seem that the countercultural existence to which the disciples are called works like salt-an agent of seasoning and preservation. It is so very basic that, if it loses its essence, nothing exists that can restore it. The little group of disciples, preoccupied as it is with greatness and preserving its position of privilege to the neglect of the “little ones” for whom Jesus is chiefly concerned, is sorely in need of “salting with fire.” Only to the extent that there is among the disciples peace born of mutual service to the least can the nature of God’s reign be made known.

Sunday, August 2nd

TENTH SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST

Exodus 16:2-4, 9-15
Psalm 78:23-29
Ephesians 4:1-16
John 6:24-35

PRAYER OF THE DAY: O God, eternal goodness, immeasurable love, you place your gifts before us; we eat and are satisfied. Fill us and this world in all its need with the life that comes only from you, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.

John’s gospel doesn’t spoon feed us the good news. Instead, we are given signs, metaphors, images and symbols that don’t always fit neatly together into a coherent whole. Reading this gospel is hard work. This week’s lesson tells us that Jesus is the “bread come down from heaven.” Unlike ordinary bread, it is not obtained by human labor. It is a free gift. The “work” God requires of us is to believe in Jesus. But is that really “work”? The language Jesus is using here does not set well with my Lutheran upbringing. From Sunday School through seminary I have been taught never to mention “faith” and “works” in the same breath. Yet Jesus seems to be doing just that. He is telling us that the bread which comes down from heaven is more than a simple handout. Receiving it gratefully is the work God requires of us.

Perhaps it is best to think of the bread from heaven as a precious gift that nevertheless demands much. It is not simply a cash gift that can be spent in any way the recipient pleases. Receiving the bread from heaven is more like being given a very fine violin. As a gift, it is obviously free. Yet such a gift clearly demands much of the recipient. If a violin is going to be of any use to me, I must learn to play it. Unless I happen to be one of those rare musical prodigies capable of picking up an instrument cold and making music, I will probably need years of instruction and hours upon hours of practice before I am merely proficient. If I want to become more than proficient, if I want to become a performance level violinist, I am looking at a lifetime commitment that will require much sacrifice and dedication to the instrument.

It is not surprising to me that relatively few people become accomplished musicians. Though I am not a musician myself, I have them in my family and among my friends. They know how much time goes into learning scales, practicing arpeggios and learning to read music-all of which comes before you can begin making music. They know the frustration of being stuck at a plateau in development beyond which it seems impossible to advance. They also know that every advance must be maintained by relentless practice. There is no such thing as a vacation from the instrument. Nevertheless, they tell me that making music is their greatest joy.

I believe the gift that is Jesus is a little like that. God offers us through him a restored relationship, friendship with God’s self. Friendship is not built over night. It takes time. Friendship requires a lot of energy, forgiveness, growth and patience. Friendship changes you in ways you cannot predict. Friendship is risky. You can never know the price you might have to pay for loyalty, faithfulness and love for your friend. Jesus called his disciples friends. John 15:14-15. That is a marvelous gift that demands much of us. Perhaps that is what Paul means when he urges us to “lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called.” Ephesians 4:1. Maybe that is just another way of telling us to live fully and completely out of our friendship with Jesus. There is no other way to receive such a free, precious and wildly extravagant gift.

Exodus 16:2-4, 9-15

Less than two months into their new found freedom brought about by God’s marvelous, liberating miracle at the Red Sea, Israel is in a deep funk. The people are learning that freedom is in many respects more difficult than slavery. The slave knows that the master will feed him/her for no other reason than that a slave must eat to live and live to work. A slave has few weighty decisions to make. The master makes all the decisions. A slave does not have to wonder about what tomorrow will bring. The following day brings more of the same. Cruel, burdensome and oppressive, to be sure, but at least it is predictable. By contrast, the wilderness (and freedom) is highly unpredictable. You can’t assume that you are going to find enough water to sustain your community ten miles down the road. No master will be there to give you your rations. In the wilderness, you have no choice but to place your trust in the God who brought you there.

The people of Israel were hungry. As we all know, hunger can bring out the worst in us. Such was the case for Israel. It seems the people caught a bad case of “good old days” disease. They began reminiscing about the days back in Egypt where at least they had food. “Would that we had died by the hand of the Lord in Egypt, when we sat by the fleshpots and ate bread to the full,” they complain. Vs. 3. I doubt that, as slaves, they really were that well fed. But that is how it is when you look back at the past through rose colored glasses. Everything was better back then. The church was so full we had to set up chairs in the aisles to accommodate everyone. The Sunday School was filled with kids-and they behaved themselves better and had more respect than kids these days. Neighborhoods were friendlier. City streets were safer. Food tasted better. On and on it goes. Was the past really all that wonderful? Of course not! The Israelites were slaves. Had they forgotten so soon what it was like to be treated like cattle? Evidently, they had forgotten and that should not surprise us overly much. Good old days disease is as much a part of our age as it was in Biblical times. As Barbra Streisand sang in the movie, The Way We Were,

Memories, may be beautiful and yet
What’s too painful to remember
We simply choose to forget

That is the problem with the “good old days.” Our selective memories make the past seem a lot rosier than it really was. We fall into the trap of measuring the present against a past that is no more real than the Emerald City of Oz.

Furthermore, “good old days” disease represents more than just delusional thinking. It constitutes rebellion against our God. “This is the day which the Lord has made,” says the Psalm. “Let us rejoice and be glad in it.” Psalm 118:24. Who are we to throw the gift of today back in God’s face and tell God it isn’t good enough? Who are we to reject the time and place where God now places us and sit pouting because our memories of some other time and place seem better? God calls us to a new day. Our stubborn insistence on remaining in the old one needs to be named for what it is: sin.

That said, the journey from slavery into freedom is long and difficult. The people of Israel spent forty years in the wilderness on the way to Canaan. The way was slow and fraught with dangers. Sometimes it seemed as though they were not making any progress. Sometimes they appeared to be going nowhere. Often it seemed that they were losing ground. The life of discipleship to which Jesus calls us is no different. Perhaps that is why Paul and other New Testament writers employed the stories of Israel’s wilderness wandering as metaphors for that life. It is hard to believe that Jesus is leading us into a new creation when our bodies increasingly show their age, our energy level isn’t what it used to be and it seems as though the best years of our lives are behind us. It is hard to believe that Jesus is leading his church for the sake of the world when that church looks increasingly fractured, divided and marginalized. It is precisely when the going gets rough, when we see no evidence of progress and there seems to be no end in sight that the temptation to look back is strongest. But the scriptures warn repeatedly that there is nothing for us in the past and that the only way given to us is forward.

Of course, the good news here is that God can be trusted to provide for our needs along the way. Our needs may not be the same as our wants. Perhaps quail is not what Israel would have chosen from a more varied menu. The manna may have been sweet as honey, but even the bread of angels can become tiresome after forty years. Yet it was enough to sustain Israel throughout her journey and that is what Jesus promises as well. As the gospel for this Sunday points out, Jesus is our “bread from heaven” that sustains us.

Psalm 78:23-29

Our psalm for this Sunday is but a snippet from a much longer saga reciting Israel’s history from the Exodus to the rise of King David. As always, I encourage you to read Psalm 78 in its entirety.

This is one of the historical psalms in the psalter. It is similar in form and structure to Psalm 105 and Psalm 106 of the same genre. Historical psalms were employed by Israel chiefly in her commemorative celebrations, i.e., Passover, Day of Atonement, Feast of Booths, etc. They celebrate the acts pivotal to Israel’s self-understanding. Accordingly, the historical psalms also serve a didactic (teaching) purpose. In learning these psalms, each new generation internalized the great acts through which God displayed salvation to Israel and made her the unique nation she was.

The faith of Israel was unique in the ancient near east. The Egyptians, Assyrians, Babylonians, Phoenicians and Israel’s Canaanite neighbors saw the power of the divine chiefly in the realm of nature. Thus, their religion was built around the natural cycles of birth and death, seedtime and harvest, summer and winter. Their worship revolved around mythical themes of creation, the interaction of the gods behind the cosmic forces of death and life at work in the change of seasons. By contrast, Israel experienced the salvation of her God through God’s mighty acts in her history. Though Israel also recognized the cyclical processes of nature critical to agricultural existence, her worship gave meaning to these cycles through recitation of historical events taking place not in some distant mythical past, but in the realm of human events. Israel celebrated her deliverance from Egypt, the conquest of the land of Canaan, the establishment of the royal house of David and the dedication of the Temple in Jerusalem. Her worship and world view were anchored in these historical watersheds rather than in cosmic battles between the gods at the dawn of time.

The section of this lengthy psalm constituting our reading echoes in poetic form the lesson from Exodus. The story is not all sweetness and light as one might suppose from reading only the verses given us by the lectionary. Verses 17-22 point out that the gracious outpouring of mana and quail comes in spite of some serious provocation:

Yet they sinned still more against him,
rebelling against the Most High in the desert.
They tested God in their heart
by demanding the food they craved.
They spoke against God, saying,
‘Can God spread a table in the wilderness?
Even though he struck the rock so that water gushed out
and torrents overflowed, can he also give bread,
or provide meat for his people?’

Furthermore, God’s carrot is accompanied by a stick:

But before they had satisfied their craving,
while the food was still in their mouths,
the anger of God rose against them
and he killed the strongest of them,
and laid low the flower of Israel.

Vss. 30-31. Once again, the lectionary folks are doing their best to spare our left leaning, mainline protestant, upper middle class, ever white and ever polite sensibilities by excising all references suggesting that God might be something other than the gray-bearded slightly senile, over-indulgent grandfather that can be inoffensively slipped into our cultural landscape without disrupting the architectural skyline. Obviously, there is a serious disconnect between the God of the scriptures and the inoffensive god we would like to believe in who, like elevator music, fills in the uncomfortable silences but otherwise remains in the background. No wonder church attendance in mainline denominations is in decline. In fact, it is a wonder that anyone still comes! Just as nobody would waste time and money for a concert performance of background music pipped in over a third rate sound system, it is hard to imagine how anyone could become the least bit interested in such a boring god.

The psalm makes the point that God’s love for Israel (and the church, too, for that matter) is not a philosophical disposition shorn of all passion and feeling. The God of Israel’s love is passionate, jealous and intense. Anyone who has ever been in love knows how close anger lies at hand. Nobody can hurt us as deeply as those we love. God’s anger against us is the measure of God’s love for us. The sad reality is that God’s acts of mercy and kindness are too quickly forgotten. Too often we approach God with a sense of entitlement rather than gratitude and trust. Our demands take precedence over God’s commands. Our prayers resemble letters to Santa Clause, filled with our own self-centered demands. Yet God’s passionate love for us never grows cold. Even God’s judgment is designed to melt our cold hearts and re-ignite our trust. This psalm “makes evident how closely God’s grace and his judgment are related to each other.” Weiser, Artur, The Psalms, The Old Testament Commentary (c. 1962 S.C.M. Press, Ltd.) p. 541.

The historical recitation in Psalm 78 culminates with God’s selection of David as Israel’s king.

[God] chose his servant David,
and took him from the sheepfolds;
from tending the nursing ewes
he brought him to be the shepherd of his people Jacob,
of Israel, his inheritance.
With upright heart he tended them,
and guided them with skillful hand.

The rise of the monarchy in Israel was surrounded by controversy. The prophet and judge, Samuel, was appalled when the people demanded appointment of a king to rule over them so that they might “be like the other nations.” I Samuel 8:4-5. After all, God called Israel to be unlike the other nations. In a culture that regarded kings as equal to gods, only the Lord was worthy of the title “king.” Much of the prophetic tradition in Israel remained critical of the monarchy and saw it as a betrayal of all that Israel was called to be. Nevertheless, there is also in the Hebrew Scriptures an express belief that God’s covenant with David and the rise of his Kingdom was a saving event to be celebrated with thanksgiving. Psalm 78 is an example of this pro-monarchy sentiment.

We saw an echo of this pro-monarchy enthusiasm in last Sunday’s gospel when the crowd of five thousand, having eaten their fill of the loaves and fishes Jesus blessed, sought to take him and make him king by force. Clearly, Jesus must be the one sent by God to shepherd his people Israel. Had he not, as the psalm says, “rained down on them manna to eat, and gave them the grain of heaven”? Vs. 24. Yet Jesus seems intent on not becoming a king like David-or at least the kind of king the people were seeking. That becomes clear as Jesus speaks in this Sunday’s gospel about the true bread from heaven he has come to offer.

Ephesians 4:1-16

For my general comments on the Letter to the Ephesians, see my post of Sunday, July 12, 2015. At this point in the letter, Paul turns to a description of what life in Christ looks like. The remarkable thing about this text describing life in the church is the total lack of hierarchy. In virtually every other organization, be it social, political or religious, the key question always comes down to “Who is in charge?” In the Body of Christ, however, the key issue is “What is your gift?” “There is one Lord, one faith, one baptism and one God and Father of us all.” Vs. 5. Though the church is made up of individual members, each has his or her own “gift.” The gifts, however they may differ from one another, have one purpose: “to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.” Vs. 3.

Much scholarly debate has swirled around the enumeration of these gifts in verse 11. Some interpreters maintain that the apostles, evangelists, teachers and pastors represent offices in the church. Others maintain that these reflect natural gifts recognized by the community and exercised by individuals in non-structured communities. Lincoln, Andrew T., Ephesians, Word Biblical Commentary (c. 1990 by Word Incorporated) p. 233; Fischer, K.M., Tendenz und Absicht des Ephersbriefs, (c. 1973 by Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht) pp. 21-39. Whichever the case may be, it is clear that the gifts are not intended to enhance the recipient, but to strengthen the unity of the church. Vss. 15-16. So what matters is not who has which gift, but how the gift is used. A pastor that pushes through an educational program that interests him or her, but does not meet the needs of the church is not rightly exercising the gift of ministry. A council officer that manages to get a new addition to the church building erected, but in doing so causes dissent and division throughout the congregation might be improving upon the structure of a building, but he or she is not “building up the Body of Christ.” Vs. 12. That does not mean, of course, that we all walk on egg shells and do nothing for fear of offending anyone. Sometimes uncomfortable truths need to be spoken. Often the mission of the church must take precedent over deeply valued traditions in the congregation. Correction and reproof is part and parcel of living together in love. The church will necessarily deal with divisive and controversial topics. But unlike the rest of the world where the most powerful personality prevails and issues are often settled by a simple up or down vote, we are a community determined to take whatever time is needed to arrive at a resolution and course of action that everyone can live with-even if it means sacrificing “progress.” Getting together is more important than getting ahead. For that sort of living, we need a lot of lowliness, forbearance, patience and meekness. Vs. 2.

More than any other epistle in the Pauline corpus, Ephesians highlights the cosmic purpose of the church as a sign of God’s intent to unite not merely Jews and Gentiles, but “to fill all things” with Christ. Vs. 10. “God gives Christ as head over all to the Church and it becomes his instrument in carrying out his purpose for the cosmos. The readers are to see themselves as part of this Church which has a universal role and which is to be a pledge of the universe’s ultimate unity in Christ.” Lincoln, supra at 248. In a religious landscape increasingly dominated by “personal salvation,” individual pseudo-psychological “self-help” and individual “spirituality,” Ephesians sounds a countercultural call to lose the self in a corporate life of discipleship that isn’t all about “me.” The church’s calling is to continue corporately the life Jesus lives in the world, embracing all of the hostility such life invariably provokes.

John 6:24-35

As you may recall from last week’s gospel, Jesus had to withdraw from the crowd of five thousand he had just fed as they were seeking to take him by force and make him king. The disciples set out for the other side of the Sea of Galilee that same evening. Jesus later rejoined them in their boat on the Sea and they arrived in Capernaum. Some of the five thousand pursued Jesus and found him there on the other side of the Sea. Now they are curious as to how Jesus was able to get himself across the sea without a boat, but Jesus cuts right to the chase. “You are here because you ate your fill. Not because you saw signs.” Vs. 26. Of course, the people had, in fact, seen a remarkable sign. Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that they witnessed a miracle only. They do not understand that the feeding was a sign; that the drama unfolding in the wilderness of Galilee was intended to reflect the wilderness of Sinai where the children of Israel wandered for forty years depending on the Lord for each day’s sustenance. The fact that they demand from Jesus a sign as proof of his claims demonstrates how thoroughly they have missed the meaning of what they experienced in the wilderness. They were looking for a way out of the wilderness to restored national power and prosperity. Jesus offers them a restored relationship with the Lord who promises to give them abundant life in the midst of the wilderness. That is the true bread that comes down from heaven.

It is obvious that the crowed has misunderstood the story related in our first lesson from the Book of Exodus. The people credit Moses with providing their ancestors with bread in the wilderness and they hope that Jesus will do the same. But Jesus points out that it was not Moses, but the Lord who provided for the children of Israel. Faith in Moses or any other human leader is misplaced. Furthermore, fixation on things like bread that ensure mere survival is insufficient. One does not live by bread alone. Life that is abundant and eternal flows from a vital relationship of trust in the God who alone can give us such life.

So what is this “bread” that comes down from heaven? It is Jesus, plain and simple. There is no “work” demanded by God as a price for this bread. It has already been freely given and now stands in the questioners’ very presence. The “work,” such that it is, amounts simply to “believing in the one God sent.” Vs. 29. Belief, of course, is not mere ascent to a theological proposition. To believe in Jesus is to trust Jesus; to live out of a relationship of faith in his promises. But this is God’s work, not our own. God wins our trust and strengthens our faith by consistently demonstrating his own faithfulness to us.

This is one of many instances throughout John’s gospel in which Jesus uses the “I am” construction (in Greek, “Ego eimie”). This “I am” of Jesus echoes the “I am” spoken to Moses in response to his inquiry about God’s name. God replies “I am that I am” or, as some translators put it, “I will be who I will be.” Exodus 3:13-15. This statement is less an ontological assertion about God than it is a declaration that God demonstrates who God is by God’s acts of faithfulness to the covenant with Israel as shown by what follows immediately thereafter. God instructs Moses: “Go and assemble the elders of Israel, and say to them, ‘The Lord, the God of your ancestors, the God of Abraham, of Isaac, and of Jacob, has appeared to me, saying: I have given heed to you and to what has been done to you in Egypt. I declare that I will bring you up out of the misery of Egypt, to the land of the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites, a land flowing with milk and honey.’” Exodus 3:16-17. So too, the full significance of the “I am” Jesus pronounces will become clear only when he completes the work his Father has sent him to do. Not until he is “lifted up” will Jesus’ glory as the only Son of the Father be made known. John 12:27-36.

Sunday, March 15th

FOURTH SUNDAY IN LENT

Numbers 21:4-9
Psalm 107:1-3, 17-22
Ephesians 2:1-10
John 3:14-21

PRAYER OF THE DAY: O God, rich in mercy, by the humiliation of your Son you lifted up this fallen world and rescued us from the hopelessness of death. Lead us into your light, that all our deeds may reflect your love, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

I can well understand why, as our gospel lesson tells us, people prefer darkness to light. I don’t expect that the individuals on the Ferguson police force whose racist emails recently made the news were happy about the light shining into their private lives. Of course I don’t know, but I suspect they all presented a very tolerant and progressive face in public. I would not be surprised to learn that they were always friendly and respectful toward their African American associates and acquaintances. I strongly suspect that they had every intention of keeping their racist humor within the limited circle of their friends “who understand.” These were jokes for buddies with a sense of humor, guys not caught up in all that political correctness crap. They never expected that their private jokes would ever become public and probably never gave a thought to what might happen if they ever did.

I expect that the same assumption prevailed among the Sigma Alpha Epsilon brothers from the University of Oklahoma chanting their racist slurs while riding a charter bus. They were all just a crowd of good old boys letting their hair down and having a little fun. They would never have spoken the same words in the college cafeteria or the campus commons. They knew better than that. Who would have thought that someone might capture this moment of private revelry on video? Who would have imagined the whole affair unfolding to the public over social media? To its credit, the national leadership of Sigma Alpha Epsilon immediately shut down the offending chapter and is in the process of expelling all who took part in this tawdry little incident. But one cannot help but wonder whether the protests of “this is not who we are!” are not more accurately characterized as “this is not how we want to be seen.” I wonder whether the wrath visited on the offending brothers was less outrage over their conduct than anger over their stupidity in allowing it to go public. If you are going to be a racist, at least be discrete about it!

We should not be too hard on the folks from Ferguson or the frat brothers, however, unless we are prepared to be put under the same scrutiny. I’m not ready for that. Of course I don’t think I’m a racist and I hope I am right about that. I don’t think of myself as particularly powerful or privileged either, but I am certainly that. It starts with the fact that I am a “man.” Moreover, I am a “white” man. Further, I am a “straight” white man. These factors alone give me a huge leg up over everyone who lacks them. There is no question in my mind that the opportunities I have had over the years would not have come to me-or at least not come to me as easily-if I had been either a woman or a person of color or the uncloseted member of a sexual minority. Thanks to my parents and the power they enjoyed, I received a college education and more. That, too, has given me a head start in life. I am not saying that I didn’t work hard to arrive at where I am or to obtain what I own. Chances are, though, that without my gender, race, sexual orientation and educational advantages I would have a good deal less to show for all my hard work.

While none of the above makes me racist, it does place me in a position of advantage and domination in a society that clearly is. Standing in the light Jesus sheds upon me, I cannot deny that I have benefited from the privileges afforded white males or that these privileges come at the expense of others. That is something I would rather not have known. I would have much preferred to remain in the dark about these realities and go on pretending that I am a self-made man who has nothing he didn’t earn by the sweat of his brow. But the events in places like Ferguson and in Sigma Alpha Epsilon remind me that, for all the progress we sometimes seem to have made, racism lies very close beneath the thin venire of civility we try so hard to maintain. I am reminded that I am not competing on a level playing field and that I was born with points already on the scoreboard.

“This is the judgment,” says Jesus, “that the light has come into the world.” We cannot “unsee” what we have seen. We can no longer hide behind the pretext of ignorance. We can no longer use the excuse that we didn’t know. The truth is clear-painfully clear. Now that we see it, what are we going to do about it?

Numbers 21:4-9

I dealt with this text at length in my post of Sunday, September 14, 2014, which I invite you to revisit. This time around I was struck by a couple of things. First, the frustration of the people. I have no first-hand experience at being lost in the wilderness. In this day of cell phones, GPS, Google Earth and NSA watching our every move, I am guessing that getting lost in the wilderness would require some serious effort. Not only would you have to find a patch of wilderness big enough to get lost in, but you would have to rid yourself of all the gizmos that hitch you to the grid. These days that could include your watch, phone, car keys and wallet. You would also need to avoid detection by satellites and passing drones. With all the ways we have of tracking each other these days, it amazes me that some hikers, climbers and explorers still manage to get themselves lost.

Nevertheless, I surely have been lost, though not in the wilderness. I remember well the time I drove home with my family from Interlochen, Michigan to Ridgewood New Jersey in one overnight haul. The worst stretch was through Pennsylvania on Route 80. It was pitch black in the dead of night. All I could see was the road in front of me. I was exhausted and far too tired to be driving. Worst of all, though, was the lack of signage indicating how far along I was on the freeway and how much further I had to go. What drove me nuts was element of “not knowing.” That is, not knowing how much longer this hell was going to last or how to respond to my children when they asked me that question. I can well understand how the people of Israel finally lost it when it seemed Moses was leading them on yet another detour. “What the hell? Moses, do you have any idea where you are going? Have you got a plan? How much longer is this trip going to last?”

I have often sensed this frustration in the congregations I have led. They see the challenges facing their church such as declining membership, loss of support and they turn to me for guidance, for assurance, for some plan or strategy to get us out of this wilderness of danger and uncertainty. In some measure, I feel the same frustration as I look to my denominational leaders and find little in the way of guidance, assurance and direction. I forget that they are just as lost as I am; just as lost as my congregation. We are all lost, but at least we are lost together. That would give us much comfort if only we could find the courage to admit to each other that we are lost, that none of us knows the way out and that none of us has a plan. It is at just such times that the Spirit of God often finds an opening to work in our hard, headstrong and determined hearts.

The other noteworthy thing is the prayer of the people. Upon realizing their sin, the Israelites beg Moses to pray God to rid them of the serpents. But God does not rid Israel of serpents. Instead, God provides a remedy for the bite. The serpents remain and people presumably continue getting bit. How much longer this went on the text does not tell us.

This answer to prayer is at once less and more than Israel requested. Obviously, the people would have preferred removal of the serpents to a cure for the bite. That would have restored them to the status quo ante. But there is no going back to what was before. The rebellion of the people and God’s judgment upon them are a settled fact of history. Once a marriage is scared by infidelity or a friendship broken by betrayal, a mere apology is not sufficient to repair the breach. Grace consists not in pretending the breach never happened, but rather in the determination to continue the covenant relationship despite the breach. Israel’s rebellion has damaged the covenant, but not fatally so. It is still possible for Israel to live under the shelter of that covenant, albeit painfully so.

Perhaps there is an analogy here to life under our baptismal covenant. On the one hand, the covenant is sure. God guarantees it. Yet it is also true that in so many ways we violate that covenant, giving God just cause to annul it. God does not turn a blind eye to our infidelities, but neither does God exercise the option to vacate our baptismal covenant. Through confession and absolution, repentance and forgiveness on a daily basis, the sting of the serpent is healed. It becomes possible for sinners to live under the covenant of baptism as God’s saints.

Psalm 107:1-3, 17-22

This is a psalm of praise. Verse 22 suggests that it was sung by the faith community before a sacrifice of thanksgiving. That the worshipers are “gathered from the lands, from the east and from the west, from the north and from the south” (Vs. 3) suggests that this psalm was composed after the Babylonian Exile and the rebuilding of the temple in Jerusalem. Though some of the exiled Jews returned home to Palestine, most of the Jewish population remained scattered throughout the Mediterranean world, making pilgrimages to Jerusalem on high holy days. Such pilgrim journeys were fraught with dangers, escape from which was one of many occasions for thanksgiving.

Our reading jumps from the introductory verses 1-3 to verse 17 stating that some of the worshipers now giving thanks had become “sick” through their sinful ways. The Hebrew is obscure at this point. Some translations of the Hebrew Scriptures favor the alternative reading: “some were fools, they took to rebellious ways.” New English Bible. Given this ambiguity, we are left to ponder whether the persons described here were rescued from sickness brought on by their rebelliousness or from their rebellious ways otherwise destructive to their wellbeing. Verse 18 stating that these individuals were so affected as to become “sickened” at the sight of food is merely figurative. It means little more than that food brought them no pleasure and that they had no appetite. Thus, there is no definitive indication that sickness is the affliction from which these worshipers were delivered. Rogerson, J.W. and McKay, J.W., Psalms 101-150, The Cambridge Bible Commentary (c. 1977 Cambridge University Press) p. 52; but see Weiser, Artur, The Psalms: A Commentary, The Old Testament Library (c. 1962 S.C.M. Press, Ltd.) p. 687 for a contrary view.

In verse 18 we are told that the worshipers “drew near to the gate of death.” The psalmist pictures death as a city drawing the hapless traveler into its fatal orbit. Again, the interpretation depends on our rendering of verse 17. In a world without much in the way of medicine and where illness was poorly understood, many of the sicknesses we view as non-life threatening brought fear and foreboding. Every sickness was a reminder of human mortality as it might well progress to something much worse than first appeared. So, too, bad choices can bring a person to ruin from which there seems no way of return. In either case, we are invited to glorify the God of Israel for turning even these seemingly hopeless circumstances into occasions for the exercise of God’s saving power.

God “sent his word” at verse 20 can be understood at several different levels. At the most superficial level it can be understood as a word of rebuke (assuming that the affliction is foolishness) or of encouragement (assuming the affliction to be illness). The bringer of the word can be linked to the word in such a way as to be an extension of that word. This notion of angelic intervention applies to help in the form of natural elements that serve as God’s “angels” or angelic beings serving at God’s behest. In later Judaism and in the New Testament, the word often became identified with God’s self. See John 1:1.

As always, I encourage you to read Psalm 107 in its entirety. This marvelous hymn recounts God’s faithfulness and salvation through the lenses of many differing human situations of want and need. In every case we are invited to “thank the Lord for his steadfast love, for his wonderful works to the sons of men.” Vs. 21.

Ephesians 2:1-10

“Dead through trespasses and sins” “following the prince of the power of the air” –how are we to make sense of these terms? To understand what Paul and his followers meant by this terminology, it helps to understand the context in which they lived and worked. The Roman Empire was the overriding and dominating presence throughout the Mediterranean world in the 1st Century. Under its reign society was rigidly and hierarchically ordered with the emperor at the apex and slaves making up the base of its pyramid of power. How you regarded and treated others in your life was dictated by your assigned place in this order. Jewett, Robert, Romans-A Commentary, Harmenia-A Critical and Historical Commentary on the Bible (c. 2007 by Fortress Press) p. 49 and the citation to Lendon, J.E., Empire of Honour: The Art of Government in the Roman World (c. 1997 by Oxford: Clarendon) pp. 289-292. For Paul and his associates, this way of “walking” (Vs. 1) is sinful by definition. As a Jew, Paul understood God as the one who liberated Israel from slavery for a life of freedom in covenant with God. As a disciple of Jesus, Paul believed that genuine divine power does not manifest itself top down through the imperial hierarchy, but from bottom up through the faithful life, obedient death and glorious resurrection of the Christ. Jesus topples Rome’s pyramid uniting into a single people persons of all nations, all classes and all races. Of this people, Jesus Christ, not Caesar is Lord. There is no hierarchy in this new people, but only a diversity of gifts exercised for the building up of the Body of Christ. Ephesians 4:11-16. This is the good work in which disciples of Jesus are called to walk. Vs. 10.

I believe Paul would have recognized much that was familiar to him in a city like Ferguson, Missouri. A police department that is overwhelmingly made up of white officers whose homes are far removed from the largely African American community it serves looks a lot more like an occupation force than a public servant. Though surely saddened, I doubt Paul would be shocked to discover that elections are bought by powerful corporate interests, that wealth is overwhelmingly concentrated in the hands of a very few while a growing sector of the population lacks even the basic necessities of life. I think that Paul would recognize “the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience” (Vs. 2) every bit as much in our age as in his.

What I am not sure Paul would recognize is the presence of the church in the midst of such a world as ours. Would Paul recognize a church that is so thoroughly woven into the cultural and economic fabric of our domination society that it blends naturally into the Americana landscape? Would Paul recognize as the meeting place of Christ’s Body a locked building with a “No Trespassing” sign over the door? Would Paul see in our still highly segregated Sunday mornings the descendants of his churches? Would Paul find any disciples of Jesus engaged in the good works in which they are called to “walk.”? Vs. 10.

Our failure to appreciate the extent to which the church’s very existence challenged the legitimacy of Rome’s culture of domination has compromised our preaching of this and other Pauline texts. Perhaps the timing of this lectionary text in close proximity to the fiftieth anniversary of the march at Selma is no accident. There could hardly be a more graphic illustration of what it means to “walk” in the good works to which disciples of Jesus are called.

John 3:14-21

For some background on the larger context of this brief snippet from John’s gospel, see last year’s post from Sunday, March 16th. Suffice to say that Jesus is engaged in a conversation with Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews, who has come to him by night. Nicodemus, having been told that no one can enter the Kingdom of God without being “born from above” mistakenly believes that Jesus means he must be born all over again-a seeming impossibility. When Jesus explains that entering the Kingdom is not so much a re-birth as it is a new birthing by God’s adoption of us through the Spirit, Nicodemus is still mystified. Jesus then says to Nicodemus what we have in our lesson for Sunday: “No one has ascended into heaven but he who descended from heaven, the Son of man. And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.” Vss. 13-15.

As pointed out by one prominent commentator, the words “in him” are associated with eternal life rather than with “believe.” Thus, “whoever believes, in him may have eternal life” is the preferred rendering. Barrett, C.K., The Gospel According to St. John, Second Ed. (c. C.K. Barrett, pub. by Westminster Press) p. 179; accord, Marsh, John Saint John, The Pelican New Testament Commentaries (c. John Marsh, pub. by Penguin Books, Ltd.) p. 187. Belief is not the engine of salvation unto eternal life. As Martin Luther points out, “the trust and faith of the heart alone make both God and an idol.” The Large Catechism of Martin Luther, published in The Book of Concord, edit. Theodore G. Tappert (c. 1959 by Fortress Press) p. 365. Eternal life is given in Jesus, the Word that evokes and directs faith toward himself. To read this verse in any other way suggests that faith is a precondition for God’s mercy rather than the heartfelt response to such mercy.

“Eternal life” is a term frequently used throughout the fourth gospel, though the other gospels use it occasionally as well. While used in Jewish and Christian literature to speak of life in the new age to come, John uses it in a more expansive way. For John, eternal life begins when one believes in Jesus. “And this is eternal life,” says Jesus, “that they know thee the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom thou hast sent.” John 17:3. Through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, the eternal life Jesus shares with the Father is mediated to the disciples. John 16:13-15. It is critical to emphasize John’s present tense lest eternal life be misunderstood as a distant hope realized only after death.

It is important to remember also that the Greek texts do not contain punctuation. Thus, the decision to end the quote from Jesus at verse 15, as does the RSV, is an editorial decision. The NRSV continues the quotation up to verse 21. Commentators are split on this point. For example, Professor Raymond Brown sides with the NRSV. Brown, Raymond E., The Gospel According to John I-XII, The Anchor Bible Commentary (c. 1966 by Doubleday) p. 149. Professor Lightfoot, however, would end the quote at verse 15. Lightfoot, R.H., St. John’s Gospel (c. 1960 by Oxford University Press) p. 118. I lean toward the NRSV rendering on this point. I see no compelling reason not to extend the quote up to verse 21 and so accept John 3:16 as Jesus’ pronouncement. “All Jesus’ words come to us through the channels of the evangelist’s understanding and rethinking, but the Gospel [of John] presents Jesus as speaking and not the evangelist.” Brown, supra, at 149. With this in mind, it is possible to read John 3:16 not as a doctrinal proposition, but as Jesus’ proclamation of his reconciling mission to us.

“God so love the world” Vs. 16. The word “world” is important. When I was in confirmation, my pastor encouraged us to substitute our own names in place of “world” when reciting this well-known verse. While I appreciate that he was trying to help us personalize Jesus’ ministry, there is a danger in such particularization. For too long the church has held a narrow, individualistic view of salvation. It is as though God were trying to save as many passengers as possible from the deck of a sinking ship. This wicked world is on cruise ship destined for hell. But faith is the lifeboat that can get you safely off the ship before she goes down. God, however, is determined to save the ship. “The earth is the Lord’s” the psalm tells us. Psalm 24:1. God is not conceding one inch of it to the devil. For this reason, our own individual salvation is inextricably bound up with the salvation of the rivers, forests, animals, the hungry, the oppressed and the oppressor.

The “sending” of the Son into the world as an expression of God’s love points in two directions. Vs. 16. First, it points to the miracle of the Incarnation. John treats this in his poetic prologue at John 1:1-18. It is important to understand that incarnation, the dwelling of God with humankind, has been the intent of God from the “beginning,” that is, before creation, the fall into sin and its consequences. The constant refrain throughout the prophets is “I will be their God and they shall be my people.” That refrain is echoed in the Book of Revelation where this divine desire is finally fulfilled. Revelation 21:3-4.

Second, the sending of the Son points forward to the cross-the price God is prepared to pay for dwelling in our midst, for becoming flesh that can be torn, broken and pierced by nails. This desire of God to dwell among us at the cost of God’s only beloved Son is the measure of divine love. Such love takes shape in our lives when we become passionate about God’s reign or, to use John’s language, when we enter into eternal life which we might well render life that is eternally significant. To believe in the resurrection is to believe that the God Jesus lived and died for is real; that the salvation he offers the world is worth living for and even dying for.

Jesus continues by telling us that he has been sent not to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him. Vs. 17. Yet condemnation there surely will be. “He who does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God.” Vs. 18. Often there is a twofold reaction to Jesus in the gospel of John placing in stark relief the response of faith to that of rejection and unbelief. It is not that Jesus himself judges any person. Rather, “the idea is that Jesus brings out what a man really is and the real nature of his life. Jesus is a penetrating light that provokes judgment by making it apparent what a man is.” Brown, supra, pp. 148-149. For, “this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil.” Vs. 19. This applies to all persons across the board. The question is how one responds to this judgment. Does one say “yes” to the judgment upon his or her life and turn from death to “eternal life” as we have defined it? Or does one shun the light, continue in sin and cause the judgment to become condemnation? In sum, this passage presupposes an encounter with Jesus such as is occurring with Nicodemus in our lesson. It should not be lifted out of this context and employed for speculation about who will or will not finally be saved.

One final observation: for all the dualism in this text-light vs. darkness; belief vs. unbelief; and knowledge vs. ignorance-terms which seem to mandate that one choose one side or the other, Nicodemus remains an ambiguous character throughout John’s gospel. He appears briefly in Chapter 7 when he questions his fellow members of the council about their rush to judgment on Jesus and his ministry. John 7:50-51. We meet him again after Jesus’ crucifixion as he goes with Joseph of Arimathea to give Jesus a proper burial. John 19:38-42. John seems to recognize that there is a twilight zone between darkness and light; belief and unbelief; understanding and ignorance. In this zone faith struggles to be born.

Sunday, March 23rd

THIRD SUNDAY IN LENT

Exodus 17:1–7
Psalm 95
Romans 5:1–11
John 4:5–42

PRAYER OF THE DAY: Merciful God, the fountain of living water, you quench our thirst and wash away our sin. Give us this water always. Bring us to drink from the well that flows with the beauty of your truth through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

The journey began with excitement and high spirits. The people of Israel had been liberated from Egypt. Their years of slavery and oppression were behind them and the promise of freedom in a new land lay in front of them. Moses, their leader, was seen as a superstar. “Did you see how he stood up to old Pharaoh? Did you see how he led us right through the middle of the sea-just like he’d done it a thousand times! Good thing we have a guy like him at the helm!” But after a few days in the desert the euphoria wears off. The people are hungry, the people are thirsty, the people are tired and afraid. Moses doesn’t seem to know where he is going. Each day’s journey only brings them further into the wilderness. They begin to doubt Moses, question his leadership and wonder whether they should not turn back to Egypt.

Every leader knows how difficult it is to keep people committed to and engaged in long term projects. Americans are famously distractible, impatient and short on attention span. We want our presidents to solve the nation’s problems during the “first hundred days.” We want our Big Mack ready to go by the time we reach the pick-up window at the golden arches. We want results and we want them now. We get our news through sound bites and twitter feeds that fit neatly into a single elevator ride. The last thing we want to hear is that we must wait for answers, live without results or commit to a project we might never see finished. No wonder Moses was on the verge of being stoned to death!

The God we worship, however, wants to slow us down. God allowed the people of Israel to wait four hundred years for deliverance from Egyptian slavery. They had to spend another forty years wandering in the desert before entering into the promised land. Israel waited seventy long years in exile before God brought her home from Babylon. Disciples of Jesus have been waiting two millennia for the revealing of God’s kingdom in all its fullness. As impatient as we might get with all this waiting, God will not be rushed and God does not want us rushing either.

There is good reason for that. Rushing is dangerous. Accidents occur when we are driving frantically from one appointment to the next. Important details are overlooked when complex jobs are rushed in order to meet the all-important deadline. Relationships suffer when they consist only of rushed and abbreviated cell phone calls, texts and tweets. The most important things in life-love, friendship and faith-all require an investment of time. They need long and patient conversations like those Jesus has with the Samaritan woman in this week’s gospel and with Nicodemus last week.

The kingdom of God is also a long term project. It is not God’s will that anyone slip through the fishing net of that kingdom. For that reason, God works slowly, deliberately and persistently drawing each molecule of the universe toward its proper end. God so loved the world that he sent his Son. And through that Son God will continue loving the world until the world has no more rebellious energy left to resist. That might take a lot of time. But God is patient and has all eternity to work with.

Exodus 17:1–7

God has liberated his people from slavery in Egypt, defeated the Egyptian army at the Red Sea and led Israel to freedom. But freedom brings with it new challenges. The brick making abilities Israel had learned in Egypt are of little use in the wilderness. A whole different skill set is needed for survival in the desert. In desperate need of water for themselves and their animals, the Israelites begin to complain to Moses. They criticize his leadership, question his motives and begin to wonder whether God is truly behind Moses. Have they been duped? Have they followed a mad man on a suicidal quest? The question is summed up in the final verse of our lesson: “Is the Lord with us or not?” Vs. 7.

Moses seems also to have his own doubts about this enterprise and his ability to carry it out. That is understandable. He left Egypt with Israel trusting in God’s promise to be with him. Now he finds himself in the midst of an angry mob of thirsty people asking questions he cannot answer and demanding results he cannot deliver. No wonder Moses is at his wits end. He cries out in all too human frustration, “What shall I do with this people?”  Vs 4. Here God demonstrates remarkable patience, instructing Moses to take with him some of the elders of the people to the “rock of Horeb.” He is told to strike this rock with the staff he used to strike the Nile River turning it to blood. See Exodus 7:14-24. Moses does as God instructs and water comes forth from the rock for the people. Vs. 6.

As I have noted previously, the first five books of the Bible are believed by most Hebrew scriptural scholars to be the product of four distinct sources, these being the Jawhist source, the Elowist source, the Deuteronomic source and the Priestly source. For further elaboration, I invite you to revisit my post of March 9th and/or read the online article, Documentary Hypothesis. As it turns out, our lesson for today does not fit neatly into this hypothesis. Old Testament scholars disagree sharply over its source origin. Some have argued that the section is a conglomerate in which two or more sources are blended together, but there is no unanimity on which sources are implicated and where in the text their influence is to be found. Professor Brevard S. Childs is convinced that “th[is] question cannot be decided with any degree of certainty” and I tend to agree. Childs, Brevard S., The Book of Exodus, A Critical, Theological Commentary, The Old Testament Library, (c. 1974 Brevard S. Childs, pub. The Westminster Press) p. 306.

The mention of “the rock at Horeb” is odd. Horeb is another name for Sinai, the sacred mountain where Moses received the covenant. Israel will not reach that mountain until Exodus 19. It is possible that this is an allusion to God’s initial appearance to Moses on the mountain in the burning bush. It was there that Moses’ staff was first shown to be an instrument of God’s transformative power. Exodus 4:1-9. This narrative would dove tail naturally into the mention of the same staff later used by Moses to turn the Nile’s water into blood. Vs. 5.

This story is remarkably similar to one related in Numbers 20:1-13. Indeed, the commonality of geographic detail, etiology and plot have lead most Hebrew scriptural scholars to conclude that the two accounts are variations on a single story. In the Numbers narrative, matters do not go so well for Moses. Though instructed to speak to the rock and ask it for water, Moses proceeds to throw a tantrum in the presence of the people. He asks them, sarcastically no doubt, “shall we bring forth water for you from this rock?” Numbers 20:10. He then strikes the rock with his rod (contrary to God’s specific instruction), but water nevertheless flows forth for the people and their cattle. Moses and Aaron are denied the privilege of bringing Israel into the land of promise as a result of their disobedience. Numbers 20:12-13.

This story of Israel’s rebellion at Massah and Meribah is mentioned in the Psalms. See. Psalm 95:8; Psalm 106:32-33. Paul takes up the image of the water producing rock in this narrative (possibly with some latter rabbinic embellishment) recognizing it as a metaphor (or more?) for Christ’s sacramental presence in the church. I Corinthians 10:1-5. This and other stories from Israel’s time of wandering in the wilderness proved meaningful for the early church struggling to find its way in a world increasingly hostile to its presence. The same stories present a challenge, however, to modern churches that have settled into and become a part of the cultural landscape. Are our sedentary ways compatible with those of a people seeking, but who have not yet arrived at a homeland? See Hebrews 11:13-16.

Psalm 95

This is one of about twenty psalms thought to be associated with an enthronement festival for Israel’s God held in the fall, during which time worshipers made a pilgrimage to Jerusalem celebrating God’s triumph over all powers hostile to his rule. Anderson, Bernard W., Out of the Depths-The Psalms Speak for Us Today, (c. 1983, Bernard W. Anderson, pub. The Westminster Press) p. 175. The festival may have been patterned after rites common among Israel’s neighbors, such as the feast of akitu where the Babylonian creation myth, Enuma elish, was recited and re-enacted. Ibid. 176. However that might be, there is a critical difference between typical near eastern mythology on the one hand which tended to reflect and legitimate the imperial infrastructure, and Israel’s salvation narrative on the other hand acclaiming Yahweh as Lord. The difference is borne out by the fact that Israel’s worship outlasted her dynastic existence whereas the Babylonian and Canaanite religions died along with their empires.

Whatever its origins, Psalm 95 in its present state is obviously composed for use in public worship. It opens with an invitation for all Israel to worship God, not merely as creator, but as the God who is its “rock of salvation.” Vss. 1-2. Verses 3-5 declare that the whole of creation belongs to the Lord who is “a great king above all gods.” This might well be an ancient worship formula from a period of time when Israel acknowledged the existence of other deities, though always subject to Yahweh, her Lord. Nevertheless, its use in later Judaism functioned as a denial of even the existence of such gods. Vss 7b to 11 refer back to the narrative from our Exodus lesson as a warning to Israel. The worshipers must learn from the faithless conduct of their ancestors and its dire consequences not to be rebellious, disobedient and unbelieving.

The psalm is an illustration of just how important the narratives of God’s salvation history with Israel were for her worship and piety. The ancient stories of the wilderness wanderings were not dead history for Israel. They were and continue to be paradigms of covenant life in which Israel is challenged each and every day with God’s invitation to trust his promises and with the temptation to unbelief and rebellion. So, too, as the church enters into Lent and Holy Week, the gospel narrative of Jesus’ obedient life, faithful suffering and sacrificial death inform the real life choices that are ever before us. We see ourselves in the tentative response of Nicodemus to Jesus; Peter’s failure to follow through on his promise to go with Jesus to suffering and death; Judas’ betrayal of Jesus; and the disciples’ abandonment of Jesus. More significantly, we recognize our own new beginning in the resurrected Christ who seeks out his failed disciples and calls them to a new beginning.

Romans 5:1–11

This is a pivotal passage in Paul’s argument that we have been following for the last two weeks (in spite of the lectionary’s best efforts to scramble it). Having established that righteousness is measured not in terms of what is achieved by human effort but by trust in what God promises, Paul now sums up the consequences. Trusting in the forgiveness of sin and the promise of sanctification accomplished in Jesus, believers find the peace that always eluded them when they sought righteousness on their own terms. Paul points out that Jesus reconciled us to God while we were yet sinners. This is difficult to grasp because we usually think of reconciliation as a two way process by which two hostile parties somehow resolve their differences and manage to live peaceably going forward. But when it comes to the reconciling work of Christ, reconciliation is a one way street. We are reconciled to God whether we like it or not. The cross is God’s act of unilateral disarmament.

In the face of this bold proclamation, we often hear the inevitable objection: “If Christ has done everything to reconcile us and we cannot add anything to it by way of response, doesn’t that render us mere passive objects? What incentive do we have to be moral if salvation is simply given to us without any preconditions or expectations? Does anything we do make a difference? The answer is both “no” and “yes.” If the question is whether anything can be done to win God’s favor or improve your standing before God, the answer is clearly “no.” On the other hand, if the question is whether reconciliation transforms your life in any way, the answer is a resounding “yes.” Recall that righteousness is defined as faith which, in Paul’s understanding, translates as trust in God’s covenant promises. This faith is not merely intellectual ascent to a doctrinal assertion, i.e., “I believe that Jesus’ death paid the penalty for my sin; therefore, I am saved from the wrath of God.” Faith is confidence in God’s faithfulness to his promise to love and forgive us without limit. True obedience, then, flows not from compliance with legal obligations, but out of thankfulness and praise for all that God has accomplished for us in Christ.

John 4:5–42

For reasons probably far beyond the grasp of my simple mind, the makers of the lectionary have omitted the first four verses of our reading so that we have no idea how Jesus came to be in the vicinity of the Samaritan town of Sychar. That is unfortunate because these verses indicate to us that Jesus was on his way to Galilee from Judea and that he “had to pass through Samaria.” Vs. 4. Geographically speaking, this is not true. Though the main route from Judea to Galilee appears to have been through Samaria, Jesus could have avoided Samaria altogether if he had wanted by going up the Jordan Valley and into Galilee. The necessity, therefore, is rooted in the plan of God for Jesus’ mission and ministry.

There is no evidence of any town by the name of “Sychar” anywhere near the well that is known to be associated with Jacob. The most probable explanation is that “Sychar” is a corrupted spelling of “Shechem” which was only a short distance from the well. See, Brown, Raymond E., The Gospel According to John I-X11, The Anchor Bible, (c. 1966 by Doubleday) p. 169. The well was about one hundred feet deep covered with a stone. Without a bucket and a rope, the well could offer no relief to thirsty travelers like Jesus.

In order to get the full impact of this story, we need to understand a little bit about Samaritans. Samaritans were a Semitic people situated in central Galilee during the first century. They claimed to be descended from the ten tribes of Israel that broke away from the Davidic monarchy in Jerusalem shortly after the death of David’s son, Solomon around 922 B.C.E. After that time, there were two Israelite nations: the kingdom of Judah in the south under the reign of David’s descendants and the kingdom of Israel in the north ruled by several dynasties throughout its existence. Israel eventually established its capital in the city of Samaria under its powerful King Omri in about 880 B.C.E.; hence, the name “Samaritan.”  The peoples of this northern kingdom had their own place of worship on Mt. Garizim in Samaria. After the Assyrian conquest of Israel in 722 B.C.E., many people of the land were deported, but many also remained. The Assyrians transplanted populations from other parts of their empire onto Israelite soil and there was evidently some intermarriage between the Israelites and the newcomers. The Samaritans naturally asserted that their worship was the true religion of ancient Israel existing prior to the Babylonian conquest of Judah in 587 in which the upper classes of Judah (Jews) were carried off into exile. The Samaritans maintained that the religion of the Jews practiced in the temple of Jerusalem, rebuilt after the Babylonian Exile, constituted a perversion of Israel’s true faith. Please note that the Samaritans are not extinct. According to the latest census, there are about 750 of them living in the area of Tel Aviv. To this day they maintain their cultural identity and practice their ancient faith.

The Jews, by contrast, maintained that the true faith was preserved through the institution of temple worship in Jerusalem from which the ten tribes broke away. If you have ever wondered why the books of I & II Chronicles; Ezra and Nehemiah are loaded with mind numbing genealogies documenting exactly who was carried away from Judah into Babylon, their descendants born during the exile and who returned from exile, it all has to do with establishing the pedigree of the second temple in Jerusalem erected upon the Jew’s return from Babylonian captivity. The authors wished to establish beyond doubt that worship in this new temple was connected by an unbroken line of priests, singers and artists to the original temple built by Solomon.

According to the book of II Kings, the Northern Kingdom of Israel was completely depopulated when the Assyrians conquered Samaria in about 722 B.C.E. The Assyrians brought in foreigners to settle the land, but when these new comers experienced repeated attacks by lions, the Assyrian Emperor concluded that this must be the result of their failure to worship the gods of the land. To remedy the situation, he brought back from exile some of the priests of the Northern Kingdom of Israel to renew worship at its shrine in Bethel. The authors of II Kings assert that this priesthood began to include foreigners who introduced pagan practices, thereby perverting the true worship of Israel’s God-which had been less than adequate among the northerners to begin with since the break with Judah. II Kings 17:21-34. Obviously, this account is given from the perspective of the Jews.

As you can see, the rivalry between Jews and Samaritans was both ancient and intense. The degree of animosity between them can be seen in the book of Nehemiah where the Samaritans, along with other inhabitants of Palestine, fiercely opposed the rebuilding of Jerusalem and its temple. The Samaritans also supported the Syrian rulers in their wars against the Jews during which the second temple in Jerusalem was desecrated. The Jews returned this favor in 128 B.C.E. when the high priest in Jerusalem set on fire the Samaritan temple on Mr. Gerizim. This conflict and the memory of its bloody history was very much alive in the first century.

This is important to know because it makes clear just how important the issue of proper worship raised by the Samaritan woman really was. Some witless commentators have focused on the Samaritan woman’s five husbands and the fact that she was living with one who was not her husband as the most significant issue in this encounter. That is wrongheaded for two reasons. First, recall that women in first century Semitic societies were largely considered property. Any woman of standing belonged to somebody. If she was married, a woman belonged to her husband. If unmarried, to her father. Based on what we read in the gospels, divorce (an action available solely to men) was easily obtained for the slightest of reasons. Thus, this woman might have been infertile and so undesirable as a wife to each of the five men who divorced her. The man to whom she now belongs could well be her father, a brother or some other relative willing to take her into the household in exchange for providing domestic services-such as drawing water. Based on what little we know of this woman’s circumstances, we cannot fairly draw the conclusion that she was immoral or promiscuous. In any case, Jesus shows absolutely no interest in discussing sexual morality with this woman.

In the second place, the woman’s question is not polite cocktail party jabber typically used to draw the conversation away from unpleasant disputes over “sensitive” issues. The question about the proper place of worship as between Jews and Samaritans was about as explosive as any you could think to ask. This woman is cutting right to the chase and insisting that Jesus declare himself. Jesus’ response is to strike a blow to the wall of animosity between the two warring peoples. “The hour is coming when neither on this mountain [Gerizim] nor in Jerusalem will you worship the Father…But the hour is coming, and now is, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and in truth, for such the Father seeks to worship him.” Vss. 21-25. The true temple, according to Jesus, is “the temple of his Body.” John 2:21.

The significance of this encounter unfolds when the woman returns to her town and brings her people out to meet Jesus. “The fields are white for harvest.” Vs. 35. The last word in this reading comes to us from the lips of the new Samaritan believers: “for we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this is indeed the Savior of the world.” The operative words here are “Savior of the world” echoing John 3:16. Just as Jesus drew into his orbit Nicodemus, a member of the hostile Sanhedrin, so now he draws in people of the hostile Samaritan population. In the end, the worldwide scope of the good news is fully revealed when some Greeks seek to see Jesus. John 12:20-26.

Once again, John is playing on words here. “Living water” can be translated as “running water” as opposed to standing water that might be collected from rain in a cistern. Jacob’s well was fed by a deep underground aquifer and so would be considered running water. Hence, the woman’s question: “Sir, you have nothing to draw with and the well is deep; where do you get that living water?” Vs. 11. She does not yet understand that Jesus is speaking of the Spirit through which true worshipers must worship God. Water and the Spirit run through this story as they did in Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus and will continue throughout John’s gospel. Water, of course, is a crucial element essential to life. In an arid region where potable water is scarce and precious, Jesus’ use of this image in speaking of the Spirit was particularly compelling. One who drinks of this living water not only quenches his own thirst, but becomes a fountain of living water welling up for eternal life. Vs. 14.

Sunday, December 15th

THIRD SUNDAY OF ADVENT

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

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.

When asked by messengers from John the Baptist whether he was “the one to come” or whether John and his followers should look for another messiah, Jesus replied: “Go tell John what you have seen and heard. 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.” Matthew 11:4-5 In a recent speech given at Biola University, Christian activist Shane Claiborne reflected on this exchange between Jesus and John’s disciples and asked whether Christians today could say of their own lives that they demonstrate the same life giving message preached and lived by Jesus. He then went on to speak about a recent survey conducted by the Barna Group  out of Ventura, California soliciting the views of young people outside the church on Christians. The results were published in a book entitled Unchristian authored by David Kinnman. They are depressing, to say the least. They tend to show that most young people have lost respect for the church. Here are the study results as summarized by Godquest, an evangelical online publication: Read it and weep.

Hypocritical—Outsiders think that Christians say one thing and do another. They believe we do not act consistently with our beliefs and claim that Christians pretend to be something on the outside that is not real.

Too focused on getting converts—Outsiders often feel more like targets. They feel as if we merely want to get them “saved” and then move on to another accomplishment. Few report feeling genuinely loved by Christians. According to most outsiders, we are not good listeners. The majority of young outsiders do not feel that Christians show genuine interest in them as people.

Anti-homosexual—Young outsiders largely view Christians as hateful, bigoted, and non-compassionate in their dealings with homosexuals. They tend to view Christians as focused on “curing” homosexuals and using political means to silence them. According to many young outsiders, hostility toward gays is synonymous with Christianity (91% agree with this). Christians are often viewed as self-righteous and arrogant in their dealings with homosexuals, the opposite of how Jesus was perceived.

Sheltered—Outsiders largely think that Christians have simplistic answers to the deep complexities of life. We are viewed as old-fashioned, boring, behind the times, and not in touch with reality. Many think that we live in our own world, isolated from the real problems and complexities of life. Christians are largely viewed as ignorant and uninformed.

Too political—Christians are often viewed as synonymous with right-wing Republican conservatives. The majority of young outsiders think we are largely motivated by political interests.

Judgmental—Nearly 90% of outsiders say that the term judgmental accurately describes Christians today. Only 20% of outsiders view the church as a place where people are accepted and loved unconditionally. We are known much more for our criticism than for our love.

For further elaboration, See, Unchristian: What a New Generation Really Thinks About Christianity, Godquest, a site maintained by Worldview Ministries.

You might argue that these perceptions are unfair; that they are the result of excessive media coverage for organizations like Christian Coalition, Women Concerned and Westborough Baptist Church that claim to speak for all Christians but propagate their hateful ideological agendas in Christ’s name. There is some truth to that, but we cannot place the entire blame for our image problem on the backs of these organizations or the news coverage they receive. At the end of the day, we are responsible for our public witness. If we are getting shouted down by the likes of Fred Phelps and his deranged disciples with their cries of “God hates fags,” then we just need to speak louder and more forcefully the good news that God loves all people-especially the hated-and be willing to stand with these children of God sharing the persecution they have known all their lives. If we don’t want to be known only for what people think we are against, then we need to start demonstrating what we are for-and show that we are ready to make real sacrifices to achieve it. Churches need to get away from the notion that they are supposed to be the guardians of decency, order and morality. Jesus didn’t care much for any of these things. What he cared about was inviting people into the life giving ways of his Father’s kingdom. That is worth getting excited about. Would to God the church would rise up and make it heard!

Isaiah 35:1–10

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

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

Psalm 146:5–10

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

Do not put your trust in princes,
in mortals, in whom there is no help.
4 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.

James 5:7–10

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

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

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

Matthew 11:2–11

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

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

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

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

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