Tag Archives: Word of God

Sunday, January 31st

Fourth Sunday after Epiphany

Jeremiah 1:4-10
Psalm 71:1-6
1 Corinthians 13:1-13
Luke 4:21-30

Prayer of the Day: Almighty and ever-living God, increase in us the gifts of faith, hope, and love; and that we may obtain what you promise, make us love what you command, through your Son, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.

In our first lesson God sends a reluctant young Jeremiah to “pluck up and to break down” great nations and to “build and to plant” the seeds of a new covenant. For accomplishing this daunting assignment, he will have nothing more than the words God is giving him to speak. That should not strike us as remarkable. Words are powerful weapons. They incite revolutions, foment rebellion and inspire societal transformation that topples kingdoms and dissolves empires. The words of Dr. Martin Luther King ignited a movement that brought institutional segregation to an end. It was largely the influence of new ideas expressed in the words of dissent that moved the peoples of eastern Europe to end the regimes that held them captive for half a century. But words are also instrumental in holding together the status quo, giving ideological justification to oppression and sanctifying violence. Sinister racist sentiments, once expressed in ugly epitaphs we no longer tolerate, still wrap themselves around seemingly benign slogans such as “state’s rights,” “America first,” “make America great again” and the relentless rant against “political correctness.” Words can ruin friendships, destroy reputations and undermine a community’s confidence in its leaders. Words can be either allies or enemies of the truth. In times of violence and injustice, the prophet’s task is to marshal words in defense of truthful speech.

Jeremiah lived through the destruction of his nation. He witnessed the violence, cruelty and oppression that preceded Jerusalem’s destruction and that followed in its wake. There was no shortage of prophets in Jeremiah’s time. Most of them were prophesying victory, peace and safety for the people of Judah as the storm clouds of war with Babylon gathered on the horizon. Hananiah, Jeremiah’s prophetic nemesis, assured the people that they had nothing to fear from Babylon, that God would break that oppressive empire’s yolk and restore the kingdom of Judah to its glory days. Hananiah’s promises were spoken in the covenant language of scripture. More than a century before the prophet Isaiah had foretold an age of peace and prosperity brought about by the glory of the Lord. In Isaiah’s age, God had in fact broken the Assyrian army at the gates of Jerusalem sparing the city, the temple and the line of David. Why should the people doubt that God would do the same for Israel once again? Why continue to endure Babylonian domination? Why not stand up defiantly against the tyrant and trust in God’s promises to deliver Zion holy city and defend the temple?

Jeremiah understood that Hananiah was employing the language of scriptural truth to prophesy lies. He knew that Babylon was not the greatest threat to Israel’s existence and that victory on the battle field would not amount to salvation. Israel’s fixation on preserving the temple, the institution of the Davidic monarchy and her territorial sovereignty prevented her from recognizing her deepest need. Israel’s problem was that, as currently constituted, she had ceased altogether to be the faithful covenant partner God desired. Faith in God’s goodness had gradually degenerated into a sense of entitlement, a deluded belief that God was somehow obliged to save Israel’s beloved institutions no matter how unjust, oppressive and idolatrous she had become. What Israel was so desperately trying to save were the very things destroying her soul. The nation of Israel had to die so that the people of Israel could be reborn. God was taking away the hallmarks of Israel’s identity because that identity had become so monstrously distorted. Moreover, God had something far more precious to give Israel than what she was about to lose. That is why Jeremiah insisted that there would be no miraculous rescue this time. There was no getting around God’s judgment, but there would be a way through it to the dawn of a new day. But this good news had to be heard as bad news before it could be received as good.

In this war of words between the two prophets, Hananiah was the winner-at least in the short term. The king and the religious establishment put their trust in an ill-fated insurrection against Babylon inspired by Hananiah’s promise of divine assistance. Jeremiah suffered mob violence, religious persecution and imprisonment for the word he was compelled to speak. Yet the Bible contains not the book of Hananiah, but the oracles of Jeremiah. It was finally the words of the true and faithful prophet that enabled the exiled Jews to make sense of the terrible judgment that had befallen them and to recognize in that judgment the compassion of a God who loved them too much to allow them to continue in their faithless and self-destructive ways. Both Hananiah and Jeremiah spoke the words of scripture. But only Jeremiah spoke the Word of God.

Words, metaphors, similes, and figures of speech in the hands of false prophets, demagogues and hate groups are lethal weapons of destruction. This is particularly true where the words in question are taken from the Bible. But in the mouth of a prophet, words pluck up and tear down evil principalities and powers while planting and building up the gentle reign of God. Ours is the God who is not merely as good as his word. John’s gospel tells us that God is God’s Word. Our God is the God who speaks the universe into existence. Our God meets us in the medium of human speech. For that reason, language is holy. Every prophet knows (as does every poet) that words must be handled with discernment, reverence, wonder and awe.

Here are the words of poet Eavan Boland who, like Jeremiah, prophesied in a time of violence.

Writing in a Time of Violence

In my last year in College
I set out
to write an essay on
the Art o Rhetoric. I had yet to find

the country already lost to me
in song and figure as I scribbled down
names for sweet euphony
and safe digression.

And when I came to the word insinuate
I saw that language could writhe and creep
and the lore of snakes
which I had learned as a child not to fear-
because the Saint had sent them out of Ireland-
came nearer.

Chiasmus, Litols, Periphrasis Old
indices and agents of persuasion. How
I remember them in that room where
a girl is writing at a desk with
dusk already in
the streets outside. I can see her. I could say to her-

we will live, we have lived
where language is concealed. It is perilous.
We will be—we have been—citizens
of its hiding place. But it is too late

to shut the book of satin phrases,
to refuse to enter
an evening bitter with peat smoke,
where newspaper sellers shout headlines
and friends call out their farewells in
a city of whispers
and interiors where

the dear vowels
Irish Ireland ours are
absorbed into Autumn air,
are out of earshot in the distances
we are stepping into where we never

imagine words such as hate
and territory and the like—unbanished still
as they always would be—wait
and are waiting under
beautiful speech. To strike.

By Eavan Boland. Source: Poems in a Time of Violence, (c. 1994 by Eavan Boland, pub. by W.W. Norton Company, Inc.). Eavan Boland was born in Dublin, Ireland in 1944. She spent her girlhood in London and New York, returning to Ireland to attend secondary school in Killiney and college at Trinity College in Dublin. Boland’s poetry explores the complex experience of women in Irish history and culture, challenging traditional conceptions of womanhood and offering fresh perspectives on their roles. You can learn more about Eavan Boland and read more of her poetry on the Poetry Foundation website.

Jeremiah 1:4-10

For an excellent overview of the Book of Jeremiah, see the article by Professor Terrence Fretheim of Luther Seminary, St. Paul, MN at enterthebible.org. In this Sunday’s lesson, the prophet Jeremiah receives his call from the Lord. It is hard to pinpoint the precise timing of Jeremiah’s call. The opening lines of the book state that Jeremiah’s prophetic career began in the thirteenth year of the reign of King Josiah of Judah. Yet there is no reference in Jeremiah’s preaching to the extensive campaign against idolatry undertaken by this king that would surely have been favored by Jeremiah or to the king’s untimely death. This has led scholars to suspect that Jeremiah’s call may actually have taken place during the reign of Josiah’s successors. Some scholars have suggested that Jeremiah perceived his first basic encounter and call from God to have occurred before he was “formed in the womb.” Thus, the thirteenth year of Josiah’s reign may have been the prophet’s birthday where God “consecrated” him. His call might therefore have taken place after Josiah’s death. See Holladay, William M., “The Years of Jeremiah’s Preaching,” Interpretation, Vol. 37, No. 2 (April 1983) pp. 146-159.

More important than the precise date of Jeremiah’s call is the general historical context. It was the beginning of the age of empires. Assyria had dominated the middle east for nearly a century. When its power began to wane, young Josiah stepped into the power vacuum expanding the borders of his country further than at any time since the days of David and Solomon. He also launched a campaign to purge Israel of all pagan influences and restore the proper worship of Israel’s God. The king’s political success and his religious reforms proved short lived. Josiah lost his life opposing Egypt’s failed attempt to prop up what was left of Assyria now under siege from the rising Babylonian empire. Judah once again became a mere vassal of an imperial power, this time Egypt. In less than a year, she would be under the king of Babylon. Thus, Jeremiah was born into a turbulent era of transition. The age of city states and petty regional kingdoms was coming to an end. The age of empires had begun.

Prophets are often characterized as idealistic dreamers out of touch with geopolitical realities. Reliance upon the Lord is a pious, but unhelpful piece of advice to the king of a tiny nation caught between multiple superpowers. But Jeremiah was no novice when it came to analysis of political realities. Better than any of the kings to whom he prophesied, Jeremiah could see clearly that the world was changing. He understood the difficult truth that Israel’s rulers could not comprehend: that there was no future for Judah as an independent kingdom under the line of David. Trying to restore the glories of that kingdom in the present age was a sure recipe for disaster. If you have read the entire book of Jeremiah, then you know that his message was rejected by the Judean leadership which was hell bent on winning independence for Judah from Babylon. Jeremiah saw this stubborn determination to pursue a hopelessly impossible dream as a rejection of Israel’s God and a lack of trust in God’s ability to deliver to Judah a new and better day.

“Before you were in the womb I knew you.” Vs. 5. We should not get too caught up in speculation about God’s foreknowledge and how much of Jeremiah’s life was “predestined.” The emphasis should be placed on the words, “I knew you.” The Hebrew word for “know” used here denotes a particularly intimate sort of knowledge. The indication here is that Jeremiah is to be more than a message boy. His career will be one of intimacy with the God who called him from the womb. This relationship between the Lord and his messenger is in some respects analogous to a marriage. If you read on in this marvelous book you will discover that this “marriage” was frequently rocky. Jeremiah sometimes complained bitterly that God had let him down, deceived him and left him to the mercy of his enemies. Jeremiah 20:7-12. God was often less than gentle in responding to Jeremiah. Jeremiah 15:15-21. But that only underscores the freedom Jeremiah felt to express his deepest sentiments to the God whose word consumed his entire being.

“Ah, Lord God! Behold, I do not know how to speak, for I am only a youth.” Vs. 6.  One thing most prophets seem to have in common is low self-esteem. Jeremiah thinks he is too young and inexperienced. Moses felt he was not sufficiently articulate. Isaiah thought he was too sinful. Amos would not even accept the title of prophet. These are not the kind of extraverted, can do, positive thinking types that denominational leadership seeks for “mission developers.” It seems that genuine prophets come by their calling only reluctantly.

Psalm 71:1-6

This psalm is remarkably similar to Psalm 31. It also contains phrases and expressions that are nearly identical to other psalms. Consequently, some scholars have speculated that Psalm 71 is of more recent composition, having borrowed from these older psalms. Rogerson, J.W. and McKay, J.W., Psalms 51-100, The Cambridge Bible Commentary (c. 1977 by Cambridge University Press) p. 106. That reasoning is not entirely convincing to me, however. There is no reference to any historical event that would allow us to date this psalm. Therefore, it seems just as likely to me that Psalm 31 and the other psalms borrowed from Psalm 71 which could as easily be the more ancient. I know. Who cares?

The personal details in this psalm are remarkable. If you read the psalm in its entirety, you will discover that the psalmist is an old man or woman. His or her “strength is spent.” Vs. 9. Yet the psalmist is beset by enemies who see his or her weakness as evidence that “God has forsaken him” and that it is therefore safe to “size him” for “there is none to deliver him.”  vs. 11. (I should explain here that the use of gender in the Hebrew language is not heavily tied to the male/female dichotomy. Consequently, we cannot draw any conclusions about the psalmist’s sex from the fact that the English translators have consistently rendered the pronouns in this psalm masculine.) Though understandably concerned, the psalmist does not come to this crisis with a blank slate. The psalmist has experienced God’s salvation throughout his or her life. Because God has a track record of faithfulness, the psalmist is confident that, “Thou who hast made me see many sore troubles wilt revive me again; from the depths of the earth thou wilt bring me up again.” Vs. 20.

Once again, this prayer illustrates the breadth of human experience found in the psalms running the gambit from youthful insecurity in the face of life’s complexities to the struggles of aging and confronting death. I cannot emphasize how important it is to make these psalms your friends. The earlier in life you do that, the greater the source of comfort, strength and wisdom they will become.

1 Corinthians 13:1-13

This is one of those texts known even to people who have never picked up a Bible. Just as the Twenty Third Psalm is a staple at every funeral, the Thirteenth Chapter of Corinthians is nearly universal at every Christian wedding. Though much of what Paul has to say in this chapter is applicable to marriage, that is not what was on Paul’s mind as he wrote these words. Recall that Paul is in the midst of a letter addressed to a divided and fractious church. In last Sunday’s lesson, Paul pointed out that the Church, even the sorely divided Corinthian church, is the Body of Christ. That means that we are all individually members of that church. We do not think or conduct ourselves as autonomous individuals. We harmonize our lives to the needs of the Body of which we are part.

Clearly, the congregation in Corinth was a long way from that kind of harmonious living-as is every church to which I have ever belonged. But Paul insists that his view of the church is not just an impossible utopian ideal. Nor is it merely an aspiration. The flesh and blood church of today with all its warts, short comings and sins is the Body of Christ. I repeat: this is not just a metaphor. Paul really means to say that the church is Christ’s resurrected Body. It is a broken and wounded Body, to be sure, but it is nevertheless a Body animated by God’s Holy Spirit. Though ever dying, it is always being called back to life again. It is always in the process of healing. How, then, do sinful and self-centered men and woman live together as one Body? That is “the more excellent way” to which Paul referred at the end of Chapter 12 last week and discusses in Chapter 13 this week.

Though written in highly polished prose bordering on poetry, this chapter speaks of a love that is anything but gushy and sentimental. “Love is patient.” Vs. 4. That means accepting the fact that the church is made up of people that are broken and, more importantly, that I cannot fix them. Still, I have to love them anyway even though they probably will never change to my liking. “Love is not jealous or boastful.” Vs. 4. That is to say, it often goes unrequited and that has to be OK. I may never be properly thanked for what I do to build up the Body or appreciated for all the sacrifices I make. But if that’s a problem for me, then my love is not the sort that Paul is talking about. “Love does not insist on its own way.” Vs. 5. Not even when I happen to be right; not even when it is a matter of principle; not even when every thinking person would have to agree that my way is really the only way forward. That is sometimes a bitter pill to swallow. When you have a vision for mission or a dream for your church’s future that seems heaven sent, it is hard to hear the rest of the Body tell you that they cannot see it or do not share it. It is at just such times that I am most strongly tempted to abandon the way of love and resort to more coercive political tactics.

“Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.” Vs. 7.  There was once a young pastor fresh out of seminary assigned to a difficult congregation. No matter what the young pastor did, someone in the congregation found fault with him. After one particularly discouraging day, Jesus came by to visit him. The pastor was overjoyed to see Jesus and began immediately to pour out his troubles to the Lord. Jesus listened patiently, nodding his head and giving the young pastor a knowing smile. “Yes,” said Jesus. “A pastor’s first parish can be a difficult challenge. I remember my first church. There were only twelve members. Not one of them ever understood a single sermon I ever preached. All they could ever talk about was who should be in charge and who was the greatest. The treasurer was constantly pilfering church funds for his own use and then he had the nerve to turn me into the authorities for just thirty pieces of silver. My congregational president, who promised to stand by me to the end, told everyone after I was arrested that he didn’t even know me. The rest of my congregation deserted me and left me hanging on a cross. But enough about me. You were telling me about the problems in your congregation.”

Though this story involves a pastor, it applies as well to anyone who takes discipleship and service in the church seriously. The church is not the place to come for coddling. It is where you go to be transformed into the image of Christ. It is the place you go to be built up into the Body of Christ. Love is the cement that holds a church together. Forgiveness is the tar that patches up the breaches in its walls. The church is not a gathering of people who are a moral cut above the rest. We are flawed and broken people who cannot heal ourselves, but who believe that the Holy Spirit working in our midst can bind us together and make of us more than we could ever have been on our own. Rev. Lester Peter, the pastor who ordained me, said in his sermon on that occasion: “Peter, you will meet in your ministry the kindest, most selfless and generous people the world has ever known. You will also meet the orneriest, most stubborn and unforgiving people the world has ever known. And here is the hardest part-they will be the same people.” That has proven true. I have my share of scars from living in the church. But I have far more memories of witnessing acts of extraordinary generosity, hospitality, forgiveness, extraordinary courage and faithfulness in the many churches it has been my privilege to serve. There is no question that churches fall short of their calling. They can be selfish, petty and narrow minded. Even so, the Spirit of God is at work in their midst pushing them beyond themselves, working miracles within them and accomplishing great things through them.

Luke 4:21-30

Most of what I have to say about this passage I said in last week’s post. I do not believe it is possible to understand fully Jesus’ proclamation from the prophet Isaiah in the synagogue of Nazareth without reading what follows in this week’s lesson. I would only add that Jesus employs scripture here in precisely the way I believe preachers should. Recall that last week Jesus boldly proclaimed how Isaiah’s declaration of salvation for the poor, oppressed and blind was being fulfilled through his mission. In this week’s lesson, he appeals to two very well known stories in the Hebrew Scriptures to shed light upon Nazareth’s rejection of his mission. This is not the first time Israel has rejected a prophet sent to her. Elijah and Elisha both were persecuted by Israel’s royal establishment and lived part of their lives as fugitives. But their rejection, so far from thwarting their ministry, resulted in expanding the scope of their work beyond Israel’s borders. The widow who showed mercy on Elijah during his exile and Naaman the Syrian general who came to Elisha for healing experienced the salvation of Israel’s God. Consequently, God’s name was praised among the gentiles. So too, Nazareth’s rejection of Jesus will only further his mission and propel his saving acts further into the heart of Israel. In the same way, the persecution of the church in Jerusalem will spread the preaching of the gospel by the church into new territories. Acts 8:1-4.

 

Sunday, February 15th

TRANSFIGURATION OF OUR LORD

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

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

Transfiguration is the point of transition from Epiphany into Lent. It is the point at which Jesus’ true identity becomes as clear to us as it ever will be. “This is my beloved Son.” But it is not enough simply to know who Jesus is, how to address him and how to speak  about him in a doctrinally correct manner. That is not yet knowing Jesus, and knowing Jesus is the end point. “And this,” says Saint John, “is eternal life, that they know thee the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom thou hast sent.” John 17:3. God would have us know Jesus as he is known by his Heavenly Father. Such “knowledge” is more than acquisition of facts. Knowing Jesus in this way is less like learning the catechism and more like becoming a friend.

I believe there is no more pernicious heresy than the notion that disciples of Jesus are a “people of the book.” We are not a people of the book, but a people of the risen Christ. For this reason, I have become less and less comfortable over the years referring to the Bible as the Word of God. In fact, there are many voices speaking in the Bible, including the voice of the devil. The Bible contains prayers demanding the death of one’s enemies and even crying out for the slaughter of their infant children. The Bible contains regulations governing slavery and restrictions on woman and children that not even the strictest Biblical literalist would promote. The Bible can and has in fact led people to do perfectly abominable things. It’s a dangerous book. Sometimes I question the wisdom of placing the Bible into the hands of common people. I hasten to add, however, that the clergy have not always made such good use of the Bible either.

If we are going to refer to the Bible as God’s Word, we need to do that in a very qualified sense. First and foremost, the Word of God must be understood, not as a book, but as a person. Jesus is God’s Word made flesh. Disciples of Jesus therefore can say that the Bible is God’s Word because and only because it is a reliable witness to Jesus. In that respect and only in that respect, I would go so far as to say the Bible is inerrant and infallible (though I prefer the words “faithful and trustworthy”). The Bible can be trusted to speak truthfully about Jesus.

But the Bible does more than give us facts about Jesus and summaries of his teachings. The Bible draws us into relationship with Jesus. The Bible was never designed to answer all the questions we might have about Jesus. Like a movie trailer, it makes us hungry for more, anxious to see the full drama unfold, eager to become better acquainted with this man who speaks in jokes and parables about eternity; who is as much at home feasting in the house of a Pharisee as he is swapping stories with fishermen and drinking with tax collectors.

To be clear, I do not mean to say that by focusing on Jesus the Hebrew Scriptures are to be discarded, ignored or relegated to second class status. It is impossible to understand Jesus apart from the witness of the Hebrew Scriptures that shaped him. Jesus grew up saturated with Torah and inseparably tied to the community that revolved around it. His heart was set on fire by the preaching of the prophets. He prayed the Psalms up to the day of his death. Jesus will not have one letter of the law disregarded. But that is not to say that every sentence in scripture (whether in the Hebrew Scriptures or the New Testament) is God’s command to me at this time and in this place. Nor is it to say that each passage of scripture is of equal weight in every circumstance. That is not what Jesus taught. He was very clear that the greatest commandments are to love God with all one’s being and to love the neighbor as oneself. This love is not some fuzzy, new age concept. “In this the love of God was made manifest to us,” says Saint John, “that God sent his only Son into the world that we might live through him.” I John 4:9. Love always takes the shape of the neighbor’s need. Every other commandment must be interpreted or perhaps even set aside in the service of love.

Jesus prays for his disciples that “the love with which thou [Father] hast loved me may be in them, and I in them.” John 17:26. God would have us love Jesus and one another with the same love that binds the Trinity together. True knowledge equates with genuine love. Getting to know Jesus, then, is an eternal adventure. The more we know Jesus, the more we recognize how much we have yet to learn. Just when we think we have him figured out, he throws another surprise at us. Whenever we open the Bible, these words should be ringing in our ears: “This is my beloved Son. Listen to him.”

2 Kings 2:1-12

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

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

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

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

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

Psalm 50:1-6

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

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

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

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

2 Corinthians 4:3-6

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

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

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

Mark 9:2-9

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

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

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

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

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