Sunday, May 9th Revelation 3:1-6
We’re all familiar with the way different people can experience the same event, and yet perceive and understand that same event in vastly different ways. There are ongoing investigations from a forensic standpoint into the ways eyewitness testimony can under certain situations be less than 100% accurate.
There are other sources of differing perceptions of course, one of the most common and obvious to us all being that each of us is different and brings different skills and experiences of life to our interpretations of all that we perceive.
Were we to isolate ourselves from outside influence, and ask the question, “What is the central theme, or most important aspect, of this reading from Revelation 3,” there would undoubtedly be many different answers. The more variability you introduce into your subject group, age, sex, religion, wealth, first language, etc., the more the response would differ.
Missionaries to pre-modern tribal societies have long noticed this, as well as the fact that the many Old Testament stories that carry little intrinsic interest for us, become central to the interests and curiosity of tribes completely removed from Western cultures and history.
For example, tribal groups in India who are neither Aryan or Dravidian in origin hear the Bible from a standpoint that is often closer to the experience of the original Hebrews addressed in the Old Testament. These Dalits and Adivasi, as they are called, thought to be indigenous 3,000 years ago, are neither Hindu nor Muslim, they don’t look like most Indians, they are mostly below the poverty line, which is pretty low in India, and they are generally alienated from everything about national Indian culture.
There is a recognition when they hear certain Bible verses. The resonance is different when they hear Exodus 22:21: “You shall not wrong or oppress a resident alien, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt.” Or this from Deuteronomy 24: “You shall not withhold the wages of poor and needy laborers, whether other Israelites or aliens who reside in your land in one of your towns. 15 You shall pay them their wages daily before sunset, because they are poor and their livelihood depends on them; otherwise they might cry to the Lord against you, and you would incur guilt.”
Their connection, by means of similar life-situation, to the recipients of these Old Testament texts from 3,000 years ago, enables a more direct link of situation to interpretation. The hearer experiences the real-life compassion of the Lord. They hear their own feeling and experience already described in the holy book. To hear this is know that God sees, God hears. Hope is sometimes born from mere recognition. Most don’t know this, but 88% of the population of Nagaland, a State in India, is Christian. Two other states, Meghalaya and Mizoram, are also majority Christian.
These are just examples of what I want you to experience when we see a few things about our own reception of this letter to Sardis, but also of your reception of a sermon on the letter to Sardis after you have learned that the preacher is leaving, retiring. You’re hearing today a sermon that will be one of the last 13 sermons I will deliver here.
If you heard last week’s sermon today, exactly as I wrote it, you would hear it differently than you did a week ago. This has to do with the ethos of the preacher, the situation, which now has changed from a week ago. My words, though not as extreme as a dying man’s last words, are nonetheless similar in that there is now a predictable endpoint. Every preacher has some earned capital that must be sometimes spent. Just like in retirement itself, I will now be spending capital, and will try to bear that in mind the next few weeks.
But more important in the long term for each of us, is our attention to all the details that God gives us in the texts we read from scripture. It’s hard for us to imagine that perhaps 15% of Americans have no memory at all of the events of 9/11. Anyone younger than 25 or so will have little real memory of that day of the attack. In a fashion similar to the fact that I don’t remember Pearl Harbor, the day that will live in infamy, whereas those 90 and older can recall the visceral feeling when the news came over the radio that Sunday morning in December of 1941.
The experience changes you. The experience of 9/11 changed the Fire Department of New York city and its family members in ways that you and I were not changed.
And so sometimes it’s helpful to be aware of the situation in life of the Bible’s original hearers, readers and recipients.
Most of us know nothing about the city of Sardis. We’ve never been there. The ancient city is in ruins, like so many. Before today we perhaps knew it had a vague biblical sound to it. By now, if you’ve heard the previous four weeks sermons on these letters in Revelation, you could guess that Sardis is located in Turkey, known then as the province of Asia, already a part of the Roman Empire by John’s time.
But we wouldn’t know, and I certainly did not know, that Sardis was a capital city. It was the capital of the kingdom of Lydia. The name Lydia is familiar to Bible readers from Acts 16, where it is the name of a businesswoman who comes to faith in Christ through the apostle Paul. She was from Thyatira, our city from last week, and Thyatira, like all seven cities from this group in Revelation 2 and 3, was located in Lydia, which was essentially the western half of present-day Turkey. Being named Lydia would be like naming your child America or Tennessee.
Why do we need to know anything about Sardis and Lydia to understand this text? Why does it matter that Sardis is capital of Lydia? Isn’t the Bible the same for everybody? Doesn’t the Bible speak to all of us, all of humanity, for all time?
In a word, no. But also yes. The Bible does speak to all of us. The Bible is the same, however well or poorly it is sometimes translated. But of course, what is different is you, and me. And the Dalit tribesman in India, as well as the merchant or farmer in Sardis 2,000 years ago. We are different from each other, and so we hear differently. We experience things differently.
For example, regardless of what you think of the British Royal family, you would experience having breakfast with Prince Charles differently than his sister Princess Anne would. You would remember it. “This is actually the heir to the throne of Great Britain that I’m sitting across the table from,” you would say to yourself, while watching him try to figure out what grits are. Anne would be less impressed with her older brother than you or I would. Anne, after all, has competed in the Olympics, and was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. Charles has not.
Your background makes a difference. To live in Sardis 2,000 years ago was to be aware that you lived in the capital of the former empire of Lydia, which was home to the King who was so wealthy, his very name turned into a synonym for wealth. Until our current crop of zillionaires came along, one wasn’t as rich as Bill Gates of Warren Buffet, but as “rich as Croesus.” The wealth of King Croesus was renowned, but even his wealth couldn’t protect him, and may have led him into foolish decisions.
For Croesus, in 546 BC, attacked the Persians and was soundly defeated by Cyrus the Great, and his capitol city Sardis was conquered. The acropolis of Sardis, the indomitable fortress built at the pinnacle of the city would have remained indomitable but for a thief in the night. For Sardis had never been captured by force, and it wasn’t even in 546, because invaders of Persia entered the city by stealth under cover of night because a traitor opened the gates, when its defenders were not expecting it.
A similar event happened in 218 BC. Sardis had surrendered to the Greeks under Alexander the Great in 334 BC, but in 218, in the series of small wars that ensued between Alexander’s Ptolemaic and Seleucid successors, Sardis was again conquered when another traitor opened the gates in the night.
I’m guessing the church in Sardis heard the word of Jesus promising to come like a thief in the night with a particular resonance. They seem to have taken the warnings of Jesus to heart, for the city remained Christian up to and even beyond the conquest by Islam in 716 AD for some time.
Bible language can be particularly challenging in an age of rationalism. We read here that this text is the message of the one who holds the seven Spirits of God. How does one HOLD a Spirit. And how SEVEN?
This one who holds the Spirits says, “you have the name of being alive, and you are dead.” What does dead mean here? How does one speak to the dead? And why would one? Speaking to the dead church he says, “Awake and strengthen what remains and is almost dead.” Then he says, “I have not found your works perfect in the sight of my God.” And we want to say, “Who’s perfect? We’re only human!”
What’s going on here? What’s happening is that the same one is speaking as said, Take the log out of your own eye! to those who could only see the speck in their neighbor’s eye. It’s better to cut off your own right hand if it causes you to stumble than for your whole body to go to hell. You just need faith the size of a mustard seed and you can cast that mountain into the sea.
That’s not my way of thinking or speaking. I specialize in the specific, the pedantic, even. My words are “Well yes, but…” I hedge, I qualify, I balance. Jesus says to the dead, “Wake up!” He said it to the daughter of the synagogue ruler, he said it to the son of the widow of Nain. Wake up, get up! She’s only sleeping, he said, as the crowd laughed at him scornfully.
What’s happening there? The power of Jesus Christ, the power simply of his words, is greater than the always feared King Death. Jesus speaks and it is the Word of God giving life. He exaggerates to tell the truth, for death in the face of Jesus Christ is merely a short sleep. But why should this surprise us? After all, what gave life to the world was the Word of God. Let there be light. Let the earth bring forth every living creature. And let us make man in our own image.
We persist in not seeing the power of the Word of God, and the consequent power of words in particular and in general. Plato understood so clearly the power of words that the first few chapters of The Republic are about what kind of literature is appropriate for children. Plato was not an advocate of free speech, but argued that poets are the most powerful threat to any ordered society.
The Word operates within this sphere and with the assurance given to us that God’s Word never comes back to him having not accomplished its purpose.
Warnings come to us out of God’s love. Remember the traditions you received and heard; keep that, and repent. This is revelatory in a sense we don’t often think about, that the one who has the seven spirits says “Repent.” We hear that word Repent, and think of old fellows with long beards and sandals holding a sign that says Repent! We’ve been given this narrative that encompasses the meaning of Repent by New Yorker Cartoonists and others who think that Repent is some kind of pre-internet meme, some kind of clown language, something to laugh at. We’ve had the word stolen from us.
But if there was ever an unfunny word, it’s Repent, coming from the mouth of the crucified one. You see that? He knows what’s ahead. He knows how the universe works for he made it with the words of his mouth. Repent is all kinds of things.
Turn around and go in a different direction is central, of course. But repent; repent is get off the broad and easy path that leads to destruction. Repent is give up on anger and hatred and slandering others. Repent is open your eyes, for the Lord can see everything you have stolen from others. Repent can be “close your mouth,” for the Lord continually hears every lie that is spoken.
The church in Sardis is not necessarily small and struggling. That’s merely the human viewpoint. We’re bigger than the first church, which had only eleven. The largest most successful church, in the eyes of the world, may be “have the name of being alive, and yet be dead.” The life that Jesus speaks of here is the animating life of the Spirit. He holds the Seven Spirits of God. As he said in the Gospel of John 7, “If any one thirst, let him come to me and drink. 38 He who believes in me, as the scripture has said, ‘Out of his heart shall flow rivers of living water.’”
Repenting is beginning. To Repent is to turn. Cease from lying and stealing, and begin to send living water out of one’s heart. Be a fount of goodness. Bear good fruit from the good tree. Make the small corner of the world you inhabit a place of beauty and goodness. The promises of the crucified one not only change our hearts, they are an objective change to the world as it exists today. He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.
“He who conquers shall be clad thus in white garments, and I will not blot his name out of the book of life; I will confess his name before my Father and before his angels.”
Sunday, May 2nd Revelation 2:18-29
So, it turns out that what’s called the law of non-contradiction, and the law of the excluded middle, are essentially the same thing. The first law says, the two propositions, "A is B" and "A is not B" are mutually exclusive, and the second law says “for every proposition, either this proposition or its negation is true.” Sounds reasonable. We go around all day with these laws as our “operating system,” as it were. The traffic light up ahead is green, which means it’s not red. There’s two feet of snow on the ground, which means it’s not warm outside today.
But we also develop reasoning skills with a great deal of finesse, over time, that guide us in dealing with lived reality, which is not the same as, although informed by, formal rules of logic, like the two mentioned above.
The traffic light is green, which means it is not red. Ah, but the experienced driver knows that the green light can become a red light at any moment, and if it does at the wrong moment it might cost you $50.00! And arguments with the court would likely be pointless.
And though Tennesseans don’t have a lot of experience with two feet of snow on the ground, warm and cold are sometimes very relative expressions. When I lived in Wisconsin in the early eighties, a sunny day with a high of 20 degrees was experienced as “warm,” following 30 days straight of below zero temperatures day and night. Up there 20 degrees and sunny is a good excuse for a picnic! Nobody said, “let’s go swimming!” but there were a lot people on the sidewalks in their shirtsleeves with maybe a light sweater on. While temperature can be measured precisely, we experience it relatively, subjectively.
When Soren Kierkegaard said “Truth is subjectivity” he was reminding us partly of the truth of my examples of illogical living, but also of the bedrock reality that God is subjective; to speak grammatically, God is the subject. What does the subject of a sentence do? It acts. So Kierkegaard is asserting that we should be extremely careful with wild assertions about truth, for truth is an attribute of God. In any relation in which we find ourselves with God, he is not the object, that is, he is not and will not allow himself to be the passive object of our investigation, but turns the table on us. We must structure our understanding of God with this non-intuitive guidepost, “Truth is subjectivity.” God is the subject.
It all begins with the subject acting, the subject creating, the subject seeking and saving that which is lost. Truth can only and therefore must be found in the experience of that relation, created, formed and given by the subject, God.
I talked last week in the sermon on the letter to the church of Pergamum on the importance and centrality of apocalyptic literature for an apocalyptic time. We think of apocalyptic times as those periods in which anxiety dominates, for things have changed and become unpredictable, perhaps unreliable. When changes follow upon one another too rapidly, we start to wonder and obsess over the question, “what’s going to happen next?”
Today, we’re told the southern border crisis is not a crisis but a challenge. We’re accused of racism if we think border and immigration laws should be enforced. But of course, as Karl Marx correctly taught, virtually everything political can be understood in terms of wealth and its attendant power.
The wealthy aren’t concerned about illegal immigration because no immigrant will every replace them in their position as named professor of Economics at Harvard, or the senior partner at their law firm, or CEO of the latest technology start-up, etc., etc.
But if you’re competing for a job at Walmart or McDonalds or Dollar General, or trying to start a business mowing lawns, supply and demand in the labor market is a very real thing that affects how many groceries you can buy. There can be good effects and bad effects of immigration, but there are always measurable effects.
And we all live by, and within various borders and boundaries of life anyway, whether we’re rich or poor or in between. Some poor folks learned the hard way there’s a border at the doors to the US Capitol building back in January. Is there a border at the door to Publix? Well, it’s their property and they get to decide who to admit. When I was growing up, the sign used to say No Shirt, No Shoes, No Service. Virtually no one argued with that.
Life is full of borders. I have an invisible border around my yard. If I find you camping out in my front yard some morning, I’m going to assert my border control authority, to the degree I’m able. If the visible border at my front door is breached, I will assert additional border control. There’s a border at the Governor’s mansion, there’s a wide border at the White House, and a border up in the air for miles around in the airspace, there’s a border in my back pocket, and if someone’s hand crosses that border in the vicinity of my wallet, well, I’ll know there’s a lawyer somewhere nearby, as my lawyer father used to say.
The border crisis, or “challenge” is just one aspect of the fast-changing world we live in. The health crisis of the past year is another. The economic and possibly military crisis of confronting a newly assertive Communist China is another.
These kinds of crises lead us into apocalyptic thinking and sometime living. There’s an Atlas Missile Silo built in Kansas in the early sixties which is now the location for underground condos for sale. The Condo's layout spreads across 15 floors, and extends 200 feet underground. At the top, above ground and set into the hill outside, a dome houses the communal facilities including a pet park, arcade, swimming pool and climbing wall. Underneath are the mechanical level, medical bay and food stores, with luxury living quarters spread across the next seven floors. At the bottom, four floors house a classroom and library, cinema and bar and a gym.
The first sentence in the article about this condo on its website says, “You may think you'd have to ride out the apocalypse in a shack in the woods. But in this Kansas bunker, protecting yourself doesn't mean sacrificing comfort.”
I find it funny that they think “Apocalypse” is something you can “ride out,” in comfort or otherwise. In the famous remark of Inigo Montoya from The Princess Bride, “"You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means."
For every garden I plant I tear up the soil in which I plan to plant it. More often even, I dig up and throw away the soil and replace it with the kind of soil most suited for that which I plan to plant. For some of the bugs and worms in the soil I throw away, this feels like a very apocalyptic event. “The time of change has fallen upon us. The blade of destruction wielded by the gardener has sliced downward.” But life ensues, life continues. Very little that is desirable grows best in compacted, oxygen starved, infertile, red clay dirt. The more “alive” garden soil is, the more the flowers and vegetables planted therein thrive.
The one with eyes like a flaming fire says in our lesson today, “But I have this against you: you tolerate that woman Jezebel, who calls herself a prophet and is teaching and beguiling my servants to practice fornication and to eat food sacrificed to idols. 21 I gave her time to repent, but she refuses to repent of her fornication. 22 Beware, I am throwing her on a bed, and those who commit adultery with her I am throwing into great distress, unless they repent of her doings; 23 and I will strike her children dead. And all the churches will know that I am the one who searches minds and hearts, and I will give to each of you as your works deserve.”
Just as the law of non-contradiction works more accurately in some situations than others, in the same fashion we must discern the meaning of each biblical passage as, and in the time, it’s presented to us. God is the subject, and the subject acts. And Speaks. Twice in the book of Revelation we read the language, “This calls for wisdom.” With regard to the number of the beast, and then with regard to the seven heads of the beast that is ridden by the great whore of Babylon. This Calls for Wisdom.
Wisdom is needed whenever we read and seek to perceive, and not be like those who see and do not see, and hear and do not hear. It is fair to say, as the poet Ellen Hutchinson opined,
“So wags the good old world away/
Forever and a day.” The sun rises, the earth spins, the child is born and the old man dies. The roads crumble, and the roads are repaired. The tree falls, and the grass grows. Ecclesiastes speaks to this reality: “What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun. 10 Is there anything of which one can say, “Look! This is something new”? It was here already, long ago; it was here before our time.”
Truth is subjectivity. Isaiah says in ch. 46,
“remember the former things of old;
for I am God, and there is no other;
I am God, and there is no one like me,
10 declaring the end from the beginning
and from ancient times things not yet done.”
But in Isaiah 43, God had said, “Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old. 19 I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?”
This too calls for wisdom. In one place he says Remember! In another, Do not Remember! The apocalypse is a revealing, and not necessarily an end. But it is a preparation for an end, the end, the end to all the things that Ecclesiastes said were not new and would always be here.
And so, the letter to Thyatira calls that church to remember that the toleration of falsehood and idolatry is not a virtue of the Kingdom of Christ, for he searches each mind and heart, to reward each as our works deserve. The issue in Thyatira is idolatry, not fornication. Jezebel is never described in I Kings as sexually profligate, but idolatrous. This letter to Thyatira calls for single minded loyalty and devotion to the one who knows your love and faith and service and patient endurance, and that your latter works have exceeded even that of the time of your first love.
The one with eyes like flames of fire calls the church to not tolerate false teaching, lest the church also be thrown into great tribulation with the unrepentant that follow Jezebel, that icon of unfaithfulness, and paragon of misinterpretation of the Words of the Son of God, who gave this prophet a chance to repent and she would not.
Are we living in apocalyptic times? Yes and No. I assert my right to violate the law of the excluded middle. The spirit of Ecclesiastes is true for all time, until it is not, until time is no more.
And when will that be? Don’t you wish you knew? As do I. As Jesus said, “But concerning that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but the Father only.” But what would you do, if you knew that Jesus was coming September 25, 2022, what would you do that you cannot already do today? Looking busy, as the famous Bumper Sticker recommends, won’t help. For when Jesus comes, you won’t need a bunker like the poor fools in the Atlas Missile Condos. You won’t need MREs or ammunition or gas masks. There is no hiding. Psalm 96 says, “then shall all the trees of the wood rejoice before the Lord: for he comes, for he comes to judge the earth: he shall judge the world with righteousness, and the people with his truth.”
Then we must be like the faithful virgins who were ready with oil in their lamps. When the bridegroom came, they were admitted to the wedding feast for they were ready. As Jesus said at the end of that parable, “Watch therefore, for ye know neither the day nor the hour wherein the Son of man comes.” As he also said in Luke 18, “When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?”
But the truth of the Apocalypse, the meaning of the Eschaton, the Subjectivity of the Judgment Seat of Christ, as Paul calls it in 2 Corinthians, is also true and pressing for this very moment in time. There is a “this moment, this worldly” aspect to some of Jesus’ teaching that reinforces the notion that now is the moment, now is the crisis, not the future. The good news of God in Jesus Christ is unveiled for today in verses like John 5:24, “Very truly I tell you, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life and will not be judged but has crossed over from death to life.”
There is a sense of possession of what God has promised. This now of God’s reconciling judgment is a now that applies to you and me today, and it is a now that was real in the life of every person who has heard the good news and been summoned to respond.
To hear God’s word is to be tried, judged, sentenced and saved in one moment. As long as one truly hears and sees, and is not like the Governor Felix who presided over Paul’s trial in Acts 24. “Some days later when Felix came with his wife Drusilla, who was Jewish, he sent for Paul and heard him speak concerning faith in Christ Jesus. 25 And as he discussed justice, self-control, and the coming judgment, Felix became frightened and said, “Go away for the present; when I have an opportunity, I will send for you.”
“When I have an opportunity.” Sometimes there is only one opportunity. Apocalyptic times call for apocalyptic measures, one could say. And those measures could most accurately be described as a willingness to see what is revealed and not turn away, and hear what is spoken, and not resist the judgment, the transformation, and the call to new life. “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has passed away, behold, the new has come.”
Sunday, April 25th Revelation 2:12-17
When “apocalyptic” is used as an adjective, it normally is in time of heightened fear and anxiety. Maybe the earliest apocalyptic book in the Bible is Ezekiel, written around the time of the Babylonian invasion and subsequent exile of the people of Judah around the 6th century BC. From Ezekiel 37: The hand of the Lord was upon me, and he brought me out by the Spirit of the Lord, and set me down in the midst of the valley;[a] it was full of bones. 2 And he led me round among them; and behold, there were very many upon the valley;[b] and lo, they were very dry. 3 And he said to me, “Son of man, can these bones live?” And I answered, “O Lord God, thou knowest.”
Ezekiel is full of mysterious visions, extravagant language, bold allegories, and symbolic actions. But in its prophetic sections, speaking of the punishment that was approaching in the army of Babylon, it spoke of things with which its readers were familiar. War and bloodshed.
Warfare was more personal in those days, hand to hand combat with swords and spears being the standard method, and therefore much of the awareness on the part of the public was from direct exposure. Battles were witnessed, often from the tops of the city walls. Nobody watched it on TV. Crops were burned, houses burned, women and children raped and killed, cities looted and pillaged.
All around them the Jews of that day could see their world collapsing with little hope for deliverance and restoration. Imagine being a woman forced to walk nearly 700 miles from Jerusalem to what’s today called Iraq, in the area of Baghdad, after your husband and children and parents have been killed by your captors. Grief and despair dominate your thoughts.
This scenario is repeated over the centuries. The two centuries long Persian period of relative peace is interrupted by the fresh depredations of the Greek invasions under Alexander and his successors, and when they are then overthrown by the Maccabees, a century later the overly thorough Romans take charge in the time of Pompey, Crassus and Caesar in the first century BC.
Fear and disappointment seem endemic from the 6th century forward. Where is God? the Jews repeatedly ask. What will happen next? When will it happen? Why is this happening? Why doesn’t God deliver us from our oppressors? Even after the crucifixion, after the resurrection and the 40 days Jesus spent with his disciples before his ascension, one of the disciples asked him this, from Acts 1:6: “Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?”
Will you get rid of these Romans, wipe them out, and put us back in charge? The extreme effects upon all the Jews of those several centuries of oppression engendered the extremities of the literature prevalent in that period: apocalyptic literature.
Jesus said in Luke 21: “There will be signs in the sun, moon and stars. On the earth, nations will be in anguish and perplexity at the roaring and tossing of the sea. 26 People will faint from terror, apprehensive of what is coming on the world, for the heavenly bodies will be shaken.”
These words toward the end of his ministry are a good example of the flavor of apocalyptic literature, which is found biblical books like Ezekiel, Daniel, Zechariah, the gospels, 2 Thessalonians, 2 Peter and Jude, and of course, the book of Revelation. Revelation, like its name from the Greek word apocalypse, means an uncovering, a revealing. What is uncovered, what is revealed, are God’s intentions and plans, given in an idiom intended to inspire hope and confidence for those in the midst of trials and tribulations.
In our lifetimes, and for most of the last 300 years, the relative success of the modern nation-state system and the increase of wealth, comfort, health and longevity have led to conditions under which the average western Christian has come to read what was intended to strengthen and encourage, with a growing sense of puzzlement and confusion. This growing misunderstanding sometimes has ironically led to the kind of fear and anxiety that apocalyptic literature was originally intended to assuage.
The presumed conditions into which apocalyptic literature speaks with hope and reassurance have been absent for long enough to cloud our ability to understand the purposes and methods of this kind of writing.
If I’m the famously typical American of decades back with 2.5 children, a dog, a two car garage, a mortgage and a pension plan, then reading parts of the Bible about a dragon that sweeps 1/3 of the stars from the heavens with its tail, or language similar to Jesus words in Luke 21 is more alarming than calming, more confusing than comforting.
We tend to forget that all literature is simply another form of one person speaking to another. Why did you read bedtime stories to your children? Because they liked it, certainly. Because you thought it helped them to learn to read. But also because it gives the child routine, certainty, reassurance, a sense of an orderly predictable world.
Why does the sun rise and set every day, and the moon come and go at predictable times? Why do the stars move in a pattern over the space of a year? Why do we assume that summer follows spring, and there will be seedtime and harvest?
It’s an impossible experiment, but if you were able to convince yourself that you had no idea, none whatsoever, of what will likely happen in the next few minutes, next hour, this evening, tomorrow, next week, and so on, you would be faced with so much terror you would likely lose your mind.
You know that this sermon will end in a few minutes, and worship will end toward noon, give or take. It’s predictable. You already have this afternoon and evening planned out, and plans for the rest of the week.
A little spontaneity is fun, in differing amounts for different people, different age groups, perhaps; but the source of spontaneity itself is routine and predictability. Otherwise, it’s not spontaneity, it’s merely chaos. For those who are married, what if your spouse had a wildly different personality every day? What if you could not predict anything? What if you never knew what to expect? Then spontaneity becomes a killing horror. We must, we must know at least a small portion of the future, in order to be simply human.
This is partly why we like what we think are unpredictable movies and TV shows and novels. It’s fun, it’s exciting, who knows what’s coming next! But we don’t want to live in a world of constant explosions and inexplicably monstrous occurrences. The excitement of the entertainment is anchored in the predictability of daily life. No one wants to actually live on a roller coaster that never stops.
I’m going to have a nap this afternoon. Now, of course, that might not take place. Something else could happen. But I usually do have that nap. I mean, I like exciting unpredictability. Sometimes. But not on Sunday afternoons. I like unfathomable mysteries, but I also like it when Miss Marple or Philip Marlowe or Hercule Poirot figures out the mystery, and the world is rebalanced.
Our world is currently in a spasm of trying to get rebalanced. Different people react in different ways. As we’ve learned, a societal regime that tries to keep people inside their homes for weeks, months on end, is simply not a sustainable plan, not a workable solution to the threat of a virus that is not dangerous for the vast majority of the population.
We’re seeing what happens when you step on something hard and long enough and then let go. It springs back with a vengeance. After the initial lockdowns of a year ago, crime belched forth as if from the door of a blast furnace suddenly opened.
The 30% surge in murder rates nationwide in 2020, 30%, has no modern equivalent. Never happened before, from one year to the next. It has changed so drastically. There are areas of relative peace in this country, but they’re offset by places like Chicago, Atlanta, and NYC, whose murder rates went up by 58%, 56% and 44%, year over year. So far in 2021, in Chicago, murders are up 33% in the first three months of the year compared to 2020, in New York City murders jumped by nearly 14% through March 28, and in Los Angeles, they have increased nearly 36% this year over last year.
So far, Louisiana still holds the record for the highest murder rate per capita, but for rate of increase, you can’t beat poor Portland, Oregon, where the murder rate the first 3 months of this year compared to the same period last year is up 1,900%.
It can’t all be blamed on the pandemic and lockdowns, of course. Criminals watch the news just like the rest of us, and while defunding the police, pulling back the police, replacing the police with social workers may sound like a bad idea to you, to the average criminal it sounds like school’s out forever. Free Disneyworld for everybody. Time to settle some scores and make some money!
And there’s a strange racial and sexual component to our new world as well, where suddenly virtually every problem is caused by white people, white supremacy. The riots of last summer attributed to anger over the death of George Floyd were described as a public health issue, never mind the lockdowns. So that’s OK. Climate change is now blamed on racism. And the question of sex and gender is suddenly at the forefront of every issue as well. If a man says he’s a woman, or a woman says she’s a man, people can get fired or worse for not playing along, for instead preferring the truths of biological science that we thought we had leaned in 8th grade biology.
Now, even Planned Parenthood, responsible for many millions of premature deaths of children in the womb, is finally admitting the racist teachings of it’s founder, Margaret Sanger, who wrote in 1932, "The main objects of the Population Congress would be to apply a stern and rigid policy of sterilization and segregation to that grade of population whose progeny is tainted, or whose inheritance is such that objectionable traits may be transmitted to offspring; to give certain dysgenic groups in our population their choice of segregation or sterilization."
All of these things unbalance people’s normal perception of the world. I feel a genuine sorrow for young people who think that they want to marry and have a family. The perennial mating dance of the human species is nerve-wracking enough, without constantly changing the rules, from week to week almost, it seems.
So, even though I’ve banned the phrase “new normal” from my personal vocabulary, the world, our world, is very different than it was in 2019, and not for the better, I don’t think. The church has been bullied in different countries, and in different states in our own country over the right to worship in person. Governments and businesses are floating the idea of a two class society; vaccinated and unvaccinated. One can travel, one cannot. One can enter office buildings, one cannot. One can fly on the airlines, one cannot. You may be one, or the other, but the creation of a class of untouchables does not bode well for freedom of any sort.
All of this is why perhaps apocalyptic is no longer so foreign to the Christian imagination in our time. When someone is killed by the police these days, whether justly or unjustly, we’re told to say his or her name. I can relate to that. No one wants to vanish under that anonymous waves of time. I think it should be applied a little more evenhandedly, though, in a time when we’ve seen a relentless attack on the history and culture of particular places in the form of statues and monuments. At first it was just Southerners who were on the putative wrong side in the Civil war, but then it was George Washington, and Abraham Lincoln, Fr. Junipero Serra.
But we have a name in our reading from Revelation chapter 2, Antipas. The author of Revelation gives his own name, John, at the beginning, but Antipas is the only disciple named in the whole book. “I know where you are living, where Satan’s throne is. Yet you are holding fast to my name, and you did not deny your faith in me[a] even in the days of Antipas my witness, my faithful one, who was killed among you, where Satan lives.”
I can’t think of a better monument to someone. His name is in the book.The resurrected Jesus Christ, whom John calls ‘the faithful witness” in 1:5, calls him “Antipas my witness, my faithful one.” I wonder how many others named in the New Testament died at the hands of the state or the mob. We know about Peter, and Paul, and Stephen, and James. Antipas’ name means “against all.” He stood against the world.
Antipas’ name lives on in eternity. Just as the one who has the two-edge sword says, “Repent then. If not, I will come to you soon and make war against them with the sword of my mouth. Let anyone who has an ear listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches. To everyone who conquers I will give some of the hidden manna, and I will give a white stone, and on the white stone is written a new name that no one knows except the one who receives it.”
The one who has the two edged sword, by which, as Hebrews says, the Word of God “is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart,” he calls the faithful of Pergamum to discern and judge the issue of eating meat sacrificed to idols. The Nicolaitans are mentioned again, still somewhat cryptically, but at least in the context of what’s called the teachings of Balaam, from the book of Numbers. Here he’s linked with the teachings that led the church in Pergamum to acquiesce too easily in the practices surrounding what John calls the dwelling of Satan. That’s pretty damning language.
Pergamum was a religious center. It was where the first temple to the imperial cult had been built in 29 BC, in honor of Roma and Augustus Caesar. It was also the center of the cult of Asclepios, the Greek serpent-god of healing, the source of the image of the caduceus, and it was also the location of the huge altar to Zeus-Soter, soter meaning Savior in Greek. That temple was partially moved and partially replicated in a museum in Berlin in the 19th century.
The question of eating meat sacrificed to idols was a problem in Corinth, as well, that Paul discussed, because most animals were not totally burned up in the sacrifices to the gods, but butchered and sold in markets to support the pagan temples.
One didn’t always know the “provenance” of that chuck roast one bought at the local butcher, which complicated the problem. Revelation seems to take a different approach than Paul, but the circumstances were likely different, and likely 50 years later. But in Pergamum, the issue was the pressure on the Christian to conform to the surrounding world.
Even outside of the Olympian gods that permeated all of the ancient society, the various Caesars that followed Augustus considered themselves “divine,” they were referred to on inscriptions and elsewhere as “kyrios,” which is translated for us in the New Testament as Lord. And, as we’ve seen, Zeus was referred to as Soter, or Saviour.
Separation of church and state? No such thing back then. Merely a matter of semantics? Well, ask Antipas, or all the other Christians who died for just a word, a name. To him who conquers, I will give a new name, I will give some of the hidden manna.
The eating of food sacrificed to idols was a participation in their worship. The refusal to acclaim the name of Augustus as Lord and Savior cost Antipas his life, but he gained his soul, the hidden manna and a new name on the white stone. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. 26 For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul? Or what shall a man give in return for his soul?
Sunday, April 11th Revelation 2:8-11
Kingdoms of this world have a hard time with Jesus Christ and his church. And it’s hard for us to imagine a political regime that never had to struggle with the unusual presence it its midst of a people with dual and sometimes conflicting loyalties. The Roman Republic, which ended 30 years before the birth of Christ, ancient Parthia, the city States of Greece, Athens, Sparta, Thebes, etc., the divine rule of Pharoah, all of them ruled by a regime that was essentially united with the divine, or had a controlling relationship, with government authority mediating and channeling all aspects of religion.
So, for example, Augustus, whom we now refer to as the first Roman “Emperor,” was actually the bridge from the Republic to the Empire. He of course was a member of the Senate, but in the early days of the Principate, as historians refer to the Empire after the end of the Republic, though he had a great deal of unofficial power, his only actual office held was Pontifex Maximus, Chief Priest of Rome.
For those of us who don’t know how to think of the unities of political authority in a pre-Christendom world, this is puzzling. We tend to think in terms of popes and other religious leaders specifically as excluded from political, governmental power, but in ancient Rome there was simply one thing, authority, and it had none of these conceptual divisions that are familiar to us. Power was unitary, a seamless garment, if you will.
This misleads us in two ways: first, in our understanding of how early Christians were perceived and also perceived themselves, as threats to the ruling order. Secondly, it makes us tend to move the modern so-called Separation of Church and State into a theological category, an ultimate good that cannot, or certainly should not be questioned. We see it as obviously right, proper and to always be defended.
But that political and constitutional innovation should instead be understood as somewhat akin to the insulation we put on electric wiring. Electricity is powerful and dangerous and must be kept apart and separate, insulated, from that which can be set aflame by electricity. A faulty analogy, of course, but revealing, as well. The Founders liked and built upon most aspects of the Roman and Greek Republics, but they inherited, in 1776, a plurality of religious denominations, let’s call them, mainly Anglicans, Presbyterians, Congregationalists, Methodists, and a few Lutherans and Baptists. The founder’s main goal was to keep federal government, Congress, as stipulated in the First Amendment, out of the affairs of the church. Whether restricting or promoting. They wanted the churches insulated.
At the time, few, if any, saw the unintended consequences of this program. Which was, in effect, the dominance of secular government, and the gradual emptying out of the possibility of a common good in the metaphorical “public square.”
Our lesson today, the letter to Smyrna, in Asia, not Tennessee, is all about politics: death, persecution, prison, tribulation. These are some of the powers of the state, any state, really. A monopoly of licit violence is a description of the modern state, but it was always sought after by any government, modern or ancient.
We also need to acknowledge what sounds like a slap at Jews in this letter to Smyrna, but is in all likelihood more of a backhanded compliment. The text says “I know the slander of those who say they are Jews but are not.” Many have read this as an attack on the legitimacy of anyone being a Jew who rejects the Jewish messiah, Jesus Christ.
But there were already situations, as early as Galatians, from the late forties or early fifties of the first century, in which many non-Christian gentiles, and some Christians who rejected Paul’s understanding of the Law, claimed Jewishness, claimed an adherence, a devotion, to the ancient law of Moses. And these may have been the group that is spoken of here in this lesson. There were what we might call “intra-mural” conflicts within and on the edges of Christianity very early, as can be seen in Galatians and the Corinthian letters. Those “who say they are Jews and are not,” may have been an appeal to the patina of age with which Judaism was already viewed at that time.
And an ancient pedigree carried a great deal of weight in that world, which contributed to Moses being revered among certain Roman and Greek philosophers after the time of Alexander and the subsequent dispersion of Jews around the Mediterranean. Any sort of “new” religion, as the followers of Jesus were thought to adhere to, to the degree that they were thought about at all, was despised and ridiculed. On the whole, Christians were considered to be, in these early days, as pestilential as the crazy Bacchanalians of the 2nd century BC who were banned by the Roman Senate because of their immoralities.
Wikipedia purports to describe the Roman ban on the Bacchanalia as a “moral panic,” or an example of practical politics, a lesson to possible enemies of the state, but at the time, the Bacchanalian revels were described to the Senate in this way: "There was no crime, no deed of shame, wanting. More uncleanness was committed by men with men than with women. Whoever would not submit to defilement, or shrank from violating others, was sacrificed as a victim. To regard nothing as impious or criminal was the sum total of their religion. The men, as though seized with madness and with frenzied distortions of their bodies, shrieked out prophecies.”
Wikipedia’s confusion is of a piece with our modern insistence on keeping the categories of religion and politics separate, whereas the ancients saw religion as the foundation and guarantor of politics that pleased the gods, and ensured the success of society and the political realm.
A very traditional society, such as Rome still was in the days of John of Patmos, considered an upstart religion such as Christianity to be merely yet another cult, to use our modern term. Yet another import from the strange cultures in the eastern part of the empire.
This is part of why these seven letters are tied together with the tagline common to all seven, “to everyone who conquers”, “to the one who conquers” “whoever conquers,” followed by a promise such as “I will give you a place with me on my throne, or, I will make you a pillar in the temple of my God, or, as in the letter to Smyrna, “Whoever conquers will not be harmed by the second death.”
The letter to Smyrna tends to highlight death and suffering because that is what awaited these Christians. Jesus’ words of introduction begin, “These are the words of the first and the last, who was dead…” he says, who WAS dead, and came to life. And the closing is “Whoever conquers will not be harmed by the second death.” In between, after telling the church that they will be tested, thrown in to prison, with Ten Days of affliction, akin to the Ten Horns of the Beast, as ch. 17 tells us, which are Ten Kings. This is followed by “Be faithful unto death, and I will give you the crown of life.”
I’m unclear about the grammatical meaning of “crown of life,” whether it’s life itself that is a crown, or there is something more that crowns life, something that is greater in the same category as life, but higher in degree. I think it’s probably the latter, a crown, an event, a possession given to those who conquer, for those who conquer are not only not conquered by the Second Death, but not even harmed, as he says.
Death is no one’s favorite topic, especially in the modern world which is haunted by the idea and reality. So-called titans of tech for a while have been talking about “uploading their information,” their personal “data” to an eternal “cloud” from whence they may one day be reincarnated, which is as Frankensteinian of a concept as I’ve heard in a long while; until I heard, just last week, that now the richest class are drinking the blood of teenagers to regain their youthfulness and freedom from age related disease.
I don’t think this is the crown of Life Jesus is talking about here. San Francisco tech billionaire Peter Thiel has started a company, Ambrosia, which will sell you two liters of plasma collected from healthy young people under the age of 25 for only $8,000. Such a deal. Even the website singularityhub.com says some think the practice is “ethically dicey.” Which makes me think of “mainly peaceful protests.”
Death is the Banquo of life, the uninvited, unwanted guest at the feast. We moderns tend to think that anyone before us had a morbid attitude toward death. We have antibiotics, and angioplasty, and chemotherapy. We tell ourselves, without actually coming out and saying it, that we’ve conquered death, when all we’ve done is delay its arrival, for some, at least.
There was no delay for the 80 million killed in WWII, 3% of the entire world’s population, and 40 million in WWI, 2.2% of the world in 1914. But we like to think that we aren’t morbid like the Victorians, and the Medieval world. Two months before he himself died, Ernest Becker’s book, The Denial of Death, was published, which asserted that civilization is an “elaborate, symbolic defense mechanism against the knowledge of our mortality.”
The fear of death haunts us all in a variety of ways. I knew a Christian man years ago who was afraid to enter a Nursing Home even to eat a meal with otherwise healthy individuals. The fear of death takes many forms. Even in the ancient world, entirely familiar with death’s frequent visits, efforts were made to undermine his power.
Epicurus, from the 4th century BC, constructed a clever negation to calm the frenzy of fear: “So death, the most terrifying of ills, is nothing to us, since so long as we exist, death is not with us; but when death comes, then we do not exist. It does not then concern either the living or the dead, since for the former it is not, and the latter are no more.”
Shakespeare of course knew the answer to Epicurus’ clever logic trap. He put it in the mouth of Hamlet, the vacillating son who wanted to avenge his Father’s own death, but also considered suicide:
“To be, or not to be: that is the question:
Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, Or to take arms against a sea of troubles, And by opposing end them?
To die: to sleep; No more; and by a sleep to say we end The heart-ache and the thousand natural shocks That flesh is heir to,
’tis a consummation Devoutly to be wish’d.
To die, to sleep; To sleep: perchance to dream: ay, there’s the rub;
For in that sleep of death what dreams may come When we have shuffled off this mortal coil, Must give us pause.”
The ultra-modern person of today doesn’t even give death the due given by Epicurus, for even Epicurus and his ilk pondered death, considered death. Tried to conquer their fear of death.
For our world, as long as entertainment and the carnival midway of modern life can keep us diverted, we tend to avoid it. When it’s unavoidable we react with rage and outrage against those who perpetrate unjust death, and those who stand in the way of some sort of ghoulish afterlife in a computer on some server farm in Seattle far in the future. Betting on an unending supply of electric power is not my idea of “eternal security,” for even solar panels have to have someone to perform the maintenance.
Our rulers have through a combination of carelessness, ruthlessness, and fear managed to shuffle off many more thousands this past year than might have died otherwise, for if life is merely a pleasant series of neurons firing in a meat puppet, death, the death of someone else that is, is merely the freeing up of precious resources of which they’ve had the use of for long enough.
The fear of death takes many forms. But the conquest of death is singular. Death is conquered by the one man who accepted his own death on behalf of others. This is why we revere mothers, who always risk their own life by giving life. We revere the soldier, who falls on the grenade for his team that he’d never even met 12 months ago. We revere all the occupations who are paid to, if the moment comes, risk, and sometimes give their life that another might live.
How does this work? How does one man dying save the world from the eternal effect of death? Well, it’s important to remember that it is not just his death which accomplishes this. In his death, he destroys the power of death, as we see in his conquest of death. Resurrection is life as we have not yet known it.
It is seen in the promise: Be faithful unto death and I will give you the crown of life. It is unfortunate that this past year, so many churches who worship the first and the last, the one who was dead and came to life, when faced with the possibility of death, turned to St. Anthony Fauci for guidance, instead of him who holds the keys of hell and death, the one who opens and no one will shut, who shuts and no one will open, him who walks among the seven lampstands and holds the sharp two-edged sword, the Amen, the true and faithful witness.
Who is our God? Unending life itself? Whom do we worship?
Of course, earthly life is precious because it’s a gift of a good God, but that is forgotten when the cheapness of “Other People’s” lives dominates the thinking of the ruling class, and you get events like the Holocaust in Germany and the Holodomor when the Soviets starved millions of Ukrainians in the 1930s, and, not to be outdone, when Mao deliberately starved 40-50 million Chinese in the late 1950s.
So life should not be carelessly handled or treated cavalierly. We all need the instincts of the old fellow sitting on the back pew at church when the preacher got a little wound up and said, “Everybody that’s ready to go to heaven, STAND UP!” The congregation jumped to their feet except one older gentleman at the back, who remained seated, looking around himself. The preacher looked at him and asked, “What’s the matter, Brother Jones, don’t you want to go to heaven?” Oh sure, “Preacher, but it sounded to me like you was setting up a trip to head out right away!”
There’s no reason not to live with care for what we’ve been given. A people who believe in Resurrection can wear seatbelts, take vitamins, drive the speed limit, get an annual physical, stop smoking, and drink only in moderation, and not be charged with lack of belief. I’m not talking about people with the high-risk factors that we gradually learned about.
But I’m talking about people who are perfectly healthy, and when the time came to confess Jesus Christ before men they were nowhere to be found. The world is watching. A pastor in Canada spent the last month in jail simply because he and his congregation worshiped God inside their church. We have lived in fear too long.
Thousands, perhaps millions, of Christians are in jail in China just for being Christian. N. Korea doesn’t bother with jails much, and Christians just disappear. Did the devil throw us into prison? Has the last year been our 10 days of testing? How do we understand the Conquest of Death? Be faithful, and I will give you the crown of Life.
It seems to me that Being Faithful can be turned into a question that can be useful for each of us. Based on what I could be expected to know about Jesus Christ and the life he’s called me to, Am I being Faithful? Can the way I speak, the way I use the resources he’s given me, the way I treat other people be described as the life of a faithful witness?
He who has an ear to hear, listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches.
Easter Sunday, April 4th Isaiah 26:1-19
Well, it’s been a long two weeks since March of 2020, but I think we’ve finally flattened the curve. The Tent hospitals of Samaritan’s Purse and the Navy Hospital ship in NY harbor turned out not to be needed and were dismantled and sent home.
It’s been disappointing to read that there are still churches today that have not allowed members to attend in person. Last fall Andy Stanley, pastor of a megachurch in Atlanta said they were not reopening, at that time, because, as he said, they “could not guarantee your safety.”
Let that sink in. That was a new concept to me. It never occurred to me that I could guarantee anyone’s safety. At church, or going to or from church. I offer no guarantees. Now, a few years ago, nobody wanted to sit on that back row over there after part of the ceiling let go and fell on the pew, but no one was hurt. Happened during the week.
Talk among Christians, Christian leaders, about guaranteed safety feels extremely odd to me, when you think about who it is we worship, and especially in the context of the Easter season. I wonder if Peter knew how irresponsible he was being with people’s safety when he preached that sermon on Pentecost Sunday. And anyway, Jesus was never safe. He wasn’t safe, nor did he offer any safety. He offered crucifixion, persecution, (blessed are those who are persecuted), he offered loss of family, he offered trial and imprisonment.
On this Sunday, we especially remember the story of Jesus’ resurrection, but have we forgotten how he got to Easter? What door did he pass through first, before arriving at Easter, as we call it today?
And of course, the very reason we worship on Sunday, the first day of the week is because of that resurrection, that conquest of the limit that death had placed on the whole world.
Many have noted that it was extremely unusual that a small group of Jews, in contradiction of all that they knew and believed and FELT deep within their bones, would give up the Sabbth, the 7th day of the week to worship their Lord on the first day of the week. That just makes no sense. Unless. Unless there was some sort of tectonic disruption that took place around that time.
For 1,000 years and more Jews had observed Sabbath. Almost all Jews today, of all kinds, would unite on the necessity, the centrality of Sabbath. What happened? The late Martin Hengel, NT Professor at Tubingen, considered that this simple, unexplained, taken-for-granted change is one of the strongest arguments for the resurrection of Jesus that there is. It would take a cataclysm of that magnitude, he argued, to shift the disciples from Sabbath, to Lord’s Day, the First Day of the Week.
It’s not as if Jesus campaigned on that issue. He didn’t promise an end to the Sabbath day, and “when I’m in office we’ll switch to the First Day of the week, and it will be beautiful!” Why would he? No one wanted to. Sabbath, qua Sabbath, was uncontroversial, and any switch was unplanned and unexpected.
Jews back then, of course, had different perspectives on how to observe Sabbath, what might be allowed on Sabbath, just like today. But there was no vote, no Council, no hearings, no discussion, at least not in the Scriptures. What is in the Scriptures?
Now after the sabbath, toward the dawn of the first day of the week, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to see the sepulchre.
Now on the first day of the week Mary Magdalene came to the tomb early, while it was still dark, and saw that the stone had been taken away from the tomb.
On the evening of that day, the first day of the week, the doors being shut where the disciples were, for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said to them, “Peace be with you.”
And finally, from Acts 20, On the first day of the week, when we were gathered together to break bread, Paul talked with them, intending to depart on the morrow; and he prolonged his speech until midnight.
The Resurrection of Jesus from the Dead led them to this, this sea change in religious practice that wars, that exiles, and persecutions, and executions had not accomplished.
This is why they gathered, on the first day of the week, to break bread, Luke tells us in Luke 24, with the resurrected Jesus at the end of their journey to Emmaus. In Acts 20, Luke doesn’t even explain. When we were gathered together to break bread. And that’s it. What happened there?
He met them in the breaking of the bread. You know the story, you’ve seen the famous painting, the Road to Emmaus. “When he was at table with them, he took the bread and blessed, and broke it, and gave it to them. 31 And their eyes were opened and they recognized him; and he vanished out of their sight. 32 They said to each other, “Did not our hearts burn within us while he talked to us on the road, while he opened to us the scriptures?” 33 And they rose that same hour and returned to Jerusalem; and they found the eleven gathered together and those who were with them, 34 who said, “The Lord has risen indeed, and has appeared to Simon!” 35 Then they told what had happened on the road, and how he was known to them in the breaking of the bread.”
Jesus was given back to his disciples on the first day of the week because he was alive. Death no longer had dominion. Death was transformed from horror, the antithesis of all that was good, to a pause, a hiatus. Why otherwise did Paul and other early Christians talk about dying as “falling asleep” in Christ? They weren’t hiding from the boogeyman. They weren’t repressing their fears, afraid to speak openly of some taboo subject that can never be named. No. Death became a reality that need no longer be feared. Paul said in I Corinthians, talking about the Resurrection of Christ; “Then he appeared to more than five hundred brethren at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep.”
The breaking of the bread. Jesus was given back to his disciples when they gathered, and shared in the meal, on the First Day of the Week. The conquest of death stamped that day with an indelible stamp. For every American over 30 years old, September 11 will always be known as 9/11. No explanation needed. As indelible as long as memory persists.
Jesus’ resurrection was enough to drive the change that would have been impossible if anyone had suggested it prior to the events of Easter. But the discussion just doesn’t seem to have come up, which is somehow more explanatory than anything else.
“Why do you meet on the First Day of the week?” “To meet our Lord.” “But why that day?” I don’t know what an ancient Christian might have said in response, except; “That’s when he met us. That’s when he came back to us.”
This little earthquake is a good analogy for all the ways that the Resurrection of Jesus is not just a fulfillment of promise, though it is that, as we hear dimly in the words of Isaiah from centuries before: “Thy dead shall live, their bodies shall rise. O dwellers in the dust, awake and sing for joy!
For thy dew is a dew of light, and on the land of the shades thou wilt let it fall.”
But it’s also the slow continental drift in social and political changes over the next 2,000 years. Around the turn of this century various intellectuals decided that there was no God, yet again, and as has become almost customary among Atheists, they were extremely angry with him because of that. Because of his non-existence. You’d think if someone would just ask themselves why that is, they might learn something of some benefit.
The American population, always somewhat behind the curve, is slowly drifting away from belief in Jesus Christ, as was recently trumpeted, cheered, really; that under 50% of Americans belong to a church, all the while I’m perceiving a slow turn to Christ among previous sceptics. I’ve watched Jordan Peterson, according to David Brooks of the NY Times, the “most influential public intellectual in the Western World,” say things like this while talking about Jesus Christ and his heretofore lack of belief:
"It becomes something with a power that transcends your ability to resist it." and
"I probably believe that. And I am amazed at my own belief and I don't understand it."
"In some sense I believe it's undeniable." and
"The narrative and the objective world touch. And the ultimate example of that is supposed to be Christ. And that seems to be oddly plausible."
"I still don't know what to make of it, partly because it's too terrifying a reality to fully believe. I don't even know what would happen to you if you fully believed it."
The roller coaster ride that is the woke American culture and politics seems to have finally arrived at the tippy top of the big drop and people are finding the accelerating pace of the freefall terrifying. People are told in college and the woke media constantly that there is no truth, there are only narratives, which are inherently discourses of power wielded on behalf of white supremacists to enslave the whole world.
The problem is that if all discourse is entirely a discourse of power, and there is no truth, then that diagnosis of despair applies to the heretofore described discourse that describes all discourse as discourse of power. To say, in a global, absolute sense, there is no truth is to betray oneself from one’s own lips as either a monstrous devil seeking whom he may devour, or as someone who hasn’t thought very clearly about the implications of what one is saying.
If the statement, “there is no truth,” is true, then it’s a lie. You see that? You told me There Is NO Truth. So that must be a lie, right? And then what do we do?
The church is becoming the little boy in the old Danish folktale, The Emperor’s New Clothes. I certainly pray that it is and will. But when the whole world lives by lies, a recovery is not simple or easy or pleasant.
Friedrich Nietzsche was a challenging thinker who had his problems, of a variety of kinds. As a philosophical atheist, he went down some unpleasant roads, perhaps reflected in his most famous quote: “And if you gaze long enough into an abyss, the abyss will gaze back into you.” Not a position that anyone should want to be in.
But no one is beyond hope in this life. We need to understand how the religious world tried to prove things to sceptics in the past, and by utilizing the weapons of disbelief, were rendered unbelievable. For the seizure of power over nature that has driven the modern western project has tempted the church into thinking it could control faith and belief. If we can just prove things, we won’t have to trust. And all the world will flock to our door and we’ll be popular, and powerful, again.
This is fighting on the wrong side of the battle. This is what they call an own goal in soccer, kicking the ball into your own net. The reintegration of the bookish class back into a reasoned trust in Christ and the scriptures and traditions of the church is the call of the church today, and one reason we read Isaiah 26 for our text today.
The Resurrection of Christ is the power of God in the world, not just with Jesus, but in Genesis 1 and all through the scriptures. It’s not a plan B because something went wrong. It is and always has been God’s goal to redeem the world from evil. I can’t explain evil and no longer try to. But I know what it is not.
When a believer in Christ is living life as if there’s a Resurrection in his or her future, then the Kingdom of God has come near to you. Some of you sat here in this empty sanctuary Friday night, for nothing! What are you, chumps? Nobody paid you, nobody rewarded you, you get nothing. In this world.
To be in the presence of God for an uninterrupted hour or more, what is that worth? A pearl of Great Price? A buried Treasure? What doth it profit a man to gain the whole world and lose his soul?
When the world, the sceptic, can see and experience a believer freely and ungrudgingly spend his limited hours and years on the objects of God’s love, then the Kingdom of God is moving in the world.
Why do we break bread? Because we know that Jesus is the Bread of life. Which means that without that bread, there is no life, as Jesus talks about life. It’s not an after-life, as we’re accustomed to saying. It’s instead that we are now in a before-life. What’s yet to come? Life.
Isaiah, who was familiar with the desert, talked about the dew. In the desert, not much dew falls, but when it does, life springs up. “For thy dew is a dew of light, and on the land of the shadow thou will let it fall.” We know that without light, there is no life, but God has given us the dew of light.
The bread of the Lord’s supper is spoken of as breaking bread, because the bread of life must be shared. That is an essential component of the church, it breaks and shares. And of course, this carries a deeper meaning, for our Bread of Life was broken on the cross. Which is why we break bread every first day of the week.
I had a lady in my Texas church remind me one Sunday that Jesus had no bones broken, as we read in the gospel of John, for he had already died when the Roman soldier came along to break the legs of the other crucified that they might die from asphyxiation, for soldiers ain’t got all day for this.
But I later thought to myself, anyone who had been at the aftermath, with Joseph of Arimathea and the women at the crucifixion, taking Jesus’ dead body down from that engine of torture, would not have quibbled at describing his body, as a broken body.
“Be known to us in breaking bread, but do not then depart; Savior, abide with us, and spread your table in our heart. 2 Here share with us, in love divine, your body and your blood, that living bread, that heavenly wine be our immortal food.”
In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.
Palm Sunday, March 28th Revelation 2:1-17
I’m inclined to think that the techniques of Hollywood, lighting, special effects, etc., are necessary for us to properly grasp the profundities of a text like the book of Revelation. It is, as we say nowadays, very cinematic! But as I think about it, that inclination is probably just an awareness of my own inadequacy at being able to convey to you this message from the book of Revelation. So we’ll stay with the spoken word, for now.
Let’s begin by acknowledging that the long history of misinterpretation
of this book means first of all that when we hear just the very word, Revelation, our mind goes to all the wrong places—timelines, schedules, dragons, Mark of the Beast, 666, end times. Misunderstanding of the purpose and proper utilization of the book has confused the interpreter’s ability to read and understand the text and hear it as the Word of God.
Let’s say you were given a front-page newspaper article about proposals for a new Corporate Income Tax rate, but you had been told by someone you thought was in the know, that the real purpose of that article, the proper way to read the article, was to decode the message by pulling out the 1st, 3rd, and 5th letter of every eight letter or longer word in the article, to find the secret message to lead you to the buried treasure of diamonds and jewels. Your interpretive scheme is thus a failure to understand the article, which was actually about describing Corporate Tax rates.
That failure is like much of the history of interpretation of the book of Revelation. Of course, if that 1st, 3rd, and 5th letter scheme actually did spell out direction and you actually did find buried treasure, it would be one thing. But in the interpretive history of the book of Revelation, and the various schemes to map out everything in there and figure out a schedule, so we can make plans, or build bunkers, or stock up on ammunition, water and freeze-dried beef jerky, it has never happened.
Plenty of people have done those things, but the world’s end did not arrive on schedule.
All the schemes and schedules that persist in assuming that the book is intended to give us a timeline as to what will happen when to who, have failed; repeatedly, sometimes disastrously.
Historically, these forms of mapping out what will happen when, have given rise through the centuries, and more often lately, to various sects and cults borrowing that puzzle-piece, secret decoder ring method of interpretation to create fear and generate a narrative that takes advantage of people one way or another. Bad people gonna do bad things anyway, but to allow them the gloss, the cover of Biblical language is an unforced error that need not happen.
Back in the early 1840’s, William Miller, a Baptist preacher from Massachusetts, predicted: “Jesus Christ will come again to this earth, cleanse, purify, and take possession of the same, with all the saints, sometime between March 21, 1843, and March 21, 1844.”
You all know the result of that overconfident prediction. After some hurried recalculations, the date was bumped up to April 18, 1844. Still disappointing. Another Millerite preacher recalculated, pointing out what the original thinking had left out, and said they’d finally figured it out and the date really should be October 22, 1844.
When October 23 dawned and they were still here, of the 100,000 or more followers of Miller around the country, most gave up their faith entirely, a few hundred started the Adventist Christian Church, even more joined the Shakers, and a few dozen eventually founded the Seventh Day Adventist Church. The Shakers made some nice furniture, but there aren’t many of them around, and the other two groups are still around, the Seventh Day group pretty large. Both surviving denominations gave up the notion of predicting dates of Christ’s return.
But at the time, of what’s called by historians, “The Great Disappointment,” many had sold all their possessions and given everything away, looking forward to that great, getting’ up morning, and they were bereft of all recourse. Some, in Toronto, were tarred and feathered, which can be fatal, and is always painful, by angry townspeople. A Millerite church in New York was burned down. All because some preachers unnecessarily ignored the very words of Jesus Christ in Matthew 24: “But concerning that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but the Father only. Therefore, stay awake, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming. But know this, that if the master of the house had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and would not have let his house be broken into. Therefore, you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an hour you do not expect.”
The damage to churches in general was significant, because it was actual news: “Jesus Christ Still not Returned.” Lots of mockery ensued, lots of laughter at Christians generally, mocked for their gullibility, even those who had nothing to do with Miller and his tribe.
When the focus is on these kinds of shenanigans, the actual word of Jesus to real churches, as we read in Revelation 2-3, is ignored, forgotten, passed over.
But we’re going to look at this first letter, of seven, significant in it’s place as first, to the church in Ephesus, and after Easter we’ll look at the six others in chs. 2-3, to Smyrna, Pergamum, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia and Laodicea.
But we begin with Ephesus, where Paul spent almost 3 years teaching and preaching, founding the church there. Ephesus was a very old city, thought to have been founded by Greek colonists around the time of King David. Abandoned over 500 years ago, it now consists of many important ruins from the early Christian era and before. It was a seaport on the western edge of Turkey, what was called in Paul’s day Asia Minor, and was the home of the Temple of Artemis, the so-called Queen of Heaven, and referred to as one of the Seven Wonders of the World.
There are several things in these seven short verses that speak to us, but one thing for now will have to remain unexplained, and that is the precise identity and content of the Nicolaitans, and their works and teachings. Revelation ch. 2 is the only source for any information we have on them, and that tells us very little other than that they were in Pergamum and Ephesus, and that Jesus hated their works, ad did the church in Ephesus. I don’t know any more than that, and so anything else is just speculation. There was a Nicolas, in Acts 6, one of the first deacons, but there’s no reason to associate him with these bad Nicolaitans, other than the name, and there were plenty of people with that name. Makes as much sense to associate them with another Nicolas we know of, the patron saint of Toy Stores, the much-loved St. Nicholas.
But the rest of the passage has much to recommend it. The assumption is that Jesus directs his servant John, the writer of the book of Revelation, to write to the angel of the church in Ephesus. And then the rest are the words of Jesus directed to that Angel, curiously sounding like they are spoken to the whole church.
It is important to hear the ambivalence at the beginning, mainly an ambivalence on our part. For we have to ask; do churches have angels? Are churches, in fact, angels, themselves? Because, significantly, the word angel means “messenger”; it’s where we get evangelism, made from two Greek words, the prefix “eu” meaning good, and “angelism,” meaning message. Evangelism. Good News. And the church, any and every church, is intended to bear a message, and be a messenger. “Make disciples of all nations, baptize them, teach them to obey everything I have commanded you.” The message is our reason for being.
To the angel of the church in Ephesus. In the language Jesus uses to John, there seems, though, to be some kind of differentiation between the angel and the church. Is it the preacher, or the priest, or the bishop? This seems unlikely in light of the verse right before ch 2.
In 1:12, John tells us the first thing he saw in this admitted vision. He was, as he says, in the Spirit on the Lord’s day on the isle of Patmos, “and I heard behind me a loud voice like a trumpet, 11 which said: “Write on a scroll what you see and send it to the seven churches,” and he lists the seven.
Then John says, “I turned to see the voice that was speaking to me.” Here is one, though certainly not the first clue, that human language struggles, to bear, to carry the truth of heavenly things. He turned to see the voice. That tells us something about the nature of this second person of the Trinity, for “voice” is certainly related to Word, as we’ve read him described in the Prologue to the Gospel of John. I turned to see the voice.
And what did he see? Remember this is the first thing we’re told that John has seen in this book, for the voice like a trumpet was behind him. He turns and he sees, “seven golden lampstands.” The seven golden lampstands are not the origin of the voice, but that source of the voice was “in the midst” of the lampstands, one like unto a Son of Man, language straight out of the book of Daniel 7, where it says, “to him was given authority, glory and sovereign power; all nations and peoples of every language worshiped him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that will not pass away, and his kingdom is one that will never be destroyed.”
And then in that last verse of ch. 1, Jesus says to John, yet again, “Write what you see, what is and what is to take place hereafter. As for the mystery of the seven stars which you saw in my right hand, and the seven golden lampstands, the seven stars are the angels of the seven churches and the seven lampstands are the seven churches.”
Jesus walks among the Lampstands, and the stars are the angels of the churches. Not identical, but almost a distinction without a difference. We should surely look even further back, to verse 4, where it says: “John to the seven churches that are in Asia: Grace to you and peace from him who is and who was and who is to come, and from the seven spirits who are before his throne, and from Jesus Christ the faithful witness, the first-born of the dead, and the ruler of kings on earth.”
Do you see how John operates? Always moving, speaking in circles, in spirals, never forgetting what has been, and using that to show us what is to come and how.
And what is to come? Well, the church is a creaturely character. The church is a reality thickly located in time, history and culture. What do we have in common with the church of Ephesus? There are differences of many kinds, but we are called by the same one like unto a Son of Man. John references the seven spirits before the throne of God. He does his theology with pictures, as often as not. Similar to Luke in the book of Acts 2, “And suddenly a sound came from heaven like the rush of a mighty wind, and it filled all the house where they were sitting. 3 And there appeared to them tongues as of fire, distributed and resting on each one of them. 4 And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance.”
The same Spirit; but distributed, separated, and uniting them in utterance of the truth. This is heard in the Apostles’ Creed we sometimes recite, I believe in the Holy Spirit, the Holy Catholic church, the Communion of Saints. The church embraces, as Joseph Mangina says, a “genuine Spirit-created particularity within a common love and devotion to Jesus Christ.” Churches are neither all the same, nor merely different, but joined in the communion of saints.
The book of Revelation is simply not a book for the overly literal minded. It speaks to the heart in ways we cannot always delineate, but must experience.
I don’t know who the angel of the church in Ephesus is, but I know that what is said to that angel is: “The words of him who holds the seven stars in his right hand, who walks among the seven golden lampstands.” That’s worth knowing. That’s something to bear in mind, for clearly, while overhearing this message to another church whose city is in ruins, we should be heeding his instructions, his warnings, his encouragement and his promises.
“I know your works.” H e says. What could be better than that? I see those of you sitting here today, who never miss an opportunity to praise God in the sanctuary. Do you think he does not know that? I know your works. I know those of you who take the finite hours of your life, and give them away to the service of this particular lampstand at the corner of Main and Maney. I know your works, you who give and serve while no one is watching. You who give for the joy of giving to God. I know your works.
What better word could there be? Jesus knows. He sees. Your works are your love. He only chides the Ephesians for falling from the “love you had at first.”
What must they do? Have stronger feelings? Find their passion? Have a heart for God? Or any other trendy, Christian-talk? No. “Remember from what you have fallen, repent and do the works you did at first.”
John has no confusion over faith and works, for to him they are just one thing. At this point the Pauline controversies with Jewish law seem to be in the past. We love by doing the works of love. As the first letter of John says, “By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God and obey his commandments.”
Not really complicated. I know your works. What else does Jesus know? I know your toil, I know your patient endurance, I know you cannot bear evil men, I know you test those who claim to be sent by me, I know you are enduring patiently, I know you are bearing up for My Name, I know you have not grown weary!
He knows! A clear conscience is glad to be known. I used to look at my grandmother when my brother and I came home on our bicycles after a hard day’s work of terrorizing the neighborhood and wonder “how much does she know? That old lady was smart and cunning. She had raised 8 kids, at least four of them more than a handful of trouble. I knew all those aunts and uncles. Trouble. I wasn’t sure I liked her knowing what I was doing, because I knew we weren’t supposed to be doing everything we were doing.
But the word to the Lampstand is, “I know your works.” This is the same Jesus who knowing what would happen to him, nonetheless mounted the colt, the foal of an ass, and in conscious enactment of Zechariah’s messianic prophecy, rode into the City of David on what we know call Palm Sunday, the city ruled by servants of the prince of this world, rode into the city ruled by those who would without hardly a moment’s thought, whisk you up on a cross so you could die in front of those who needed an example of what happened to those who trifle with the rulers of the world.
John is going to remind us of that. But though the book of Revelation rejoices at the fall of Babylon, the great whore, in chapter 18, it is not Babylon, or Rome, that is the threat to the Lampstand in Ephesus, but their failure to do the works of love. They have maintained their fealty to the truth, they know the wrong road taken by the Nicolaitans, whatever that is. Misdeeds are generated by false teaching.
Down through the centuries, churches have sometimes taught that the color of one’s skin means a person is lesser in God’s eyes because of that, and can be abused or taken advantage of, bought and sold even, as a type of livestock. Some churches today are beginning to teach that again, that a white person must, metaphorically take a back seat because of the color of his skin, or should be treated differently by the government or an employer. And churches have taught, misleadingly, in a long ugly history, that God does not love the children of Israel, in express contradiction of God’s word in Romans 9-11, and all though the Bible. God’s firstborn child, the apple of his eye.
Some churches teach that a baby in the womb does not have the same rights as any other human outside the womb does. Certainly a right to life should be the primary right. False teaching leads to wicked deeds.
Jesus says to his Lampstand: Remember! Remember from what you have fallen, repent and do the works you did at first.
Sunday, March 21st John 4:1-15
“Like the Woman at the Well, I was seeking….for things that could not satisfy….”
The Woman at the Well. This is how we remember this passage made well known by that old familiar hymn, “Fill My Cup Lord.” Not that old actually, younger than me, even younger than my sister. Seeking, thirsting, craving, hungers. These are all prominent themes from the hymn that guides our presumptions when we do read the John 4 passage. But I draw your attention to them in order to draw your attention away. Unspoken mistakes and misinterpretations retain their power until and unless they are seen clearly and placed up alongside other ways of reading and hearing, which I want to do today.
I do like the allusive way the hymn lyrics are written, even if the music doesn’t appeal to me. The hymn begins with a simile: “Like” the woman at the well, I was seeking. That’s good. That aims the text at the personal life of each of us. It also refers directly to the biblical character and alludes to the relevant biblical figures, or metaphors: a well that never runs dry, the bread of heaven, Thirst.
But the picture it paints of the Samaritan Woman reinforces our ingrained image of a loose woman, sexually promiscuous, voraciously immoral. Even though there are a multitude of things we don’t know about her or about any and all Biblical persons.
Now you know me. If I ran for political office I would hardly be classified as the soft-on-crime type, like old Mayor John Lindsay back in the sixties, or even Mayor DeBlasio from today’s New York. I think soft on crime is just the equivalent of hard on crime victims, for they are the ones who pay the price of other’s political ambitions.
But I do want to turn around your perhaps unreflexive assumptions about the woman at the well. We need a way of looking at the story that we perhaps never had a reason to pursue.
For I must confess, I always assumed the worst about this woman. Seeking for things that could not satisfy. An ancient Elizabeth Taylor perhaps; husband after husband after husband. I always figured Taylor led the list of most divorced celebrities, like Mickey Rooney, Zsa Zsa Gabor, Larry King, but I looked it up and it’s really Lana Turner that leads the pack with 8 divorces; kind of the Barry Bonds at marriage failure. You have to ask at what point are they just not taking it seriously anymore. #4? #5. I don’t know.
But the woman at the well. In the course of her conversation with this prophet, with this Messiah, the Savior of the World, Jesus suggests that she go get her husband and come back to talk some more with him.
I have no husband, she says. That’s right, says Jesus, for you have had five husbands and the man you are with now is not your husband. This interchange has led preachers and readers to place her in the in the Elizabeth Taylor/Lana Turner category, but this seriously overstates what we can actually know about her situation and understates what we know about marriage laws in the first century.
When you look at the way the laws on divorce are stated in the OT, the language Jesus uses in the gospels, and the Rabbinic regulations of the time, it’s quite clear that the vast majority of divorces were initiated by men. Scholars have sometimes taken this language which is always couched in terms of what reason a man might have to initiate divorce and how he must go about it, as evidence of an anti-woman bias, but again, this is reading a modern attitude into an ancient situation. The likely reason women rarely initiated divorce in those days was the unanswerable question; then what? What would she do? Get a job? The iron laws of economics prevented them from any recourse once they were a single adult female with no options other than prostitution.
Jesus’ teaching about divorce was to protect women, protect them from being simply cast off by an unhappy husband, thrown out of the house with no ability to remarry, without a certificate of divorce; today it’s referred to as “the Get” by modern day observant Jews. A Get allows you to remarry. Without it you are committing adultery.
So it’s nearly impossible that the Woman at the Well was a frivolous serial divorcee. It’s economically implausible that one woman would initiate five divorces.
There are a couple of other scenarios with much more plausibility. First, she may have been herself divorced by five previous husbands. The common reason for divorce in those days was infertility, for a large family was the primary reason for marriage.
The Samaritans had their differences with Jews of the day, but they still held in common the Torah, the books of Moses, which hold the bulk of the written law. Therefore, the second scenario is also a possibility because of their familiarity with Moses’ Law.
It’s now called a Levirate marriage, and was practiced in many ancient societies. We read about it in Genesis 38, when Judah’s oldest son dies without children and his second son is required to marry his older brother’s widow and father children in his dead brother’s name. He then dies and she, Tamar, has to wait for the 3rd brother to grow up. And the story gets complicated after that. I’ll let you read the rest of it.
In a similar fashion, in Matthew 22, the Sadducees try to trick Jesus with regard to Resurrection, saying if a woman is married by seven brothers in succession, who all die in their turn before she does, “in the Resurrection, to which of the seven will she be wife?”
So perhaps this woman at the well had been married to 5 brothers in succession, who all died, and this last guy was a little hesitant about popping the question! Maybe a little superstitious.
There are many possible reasons, we’re just not told what they are. The point to remember is the progress and conclusion of John’s narrative. We only heard the first 15 verses today, but the story goes to verse 42.
There are several themes highlighted for us in the arc of the story. The Samaritan/Jew conflict, the living water, the worship of God in spirit and in truth, Jesus’ identity as Messiah, and the harvest that awaits the reapers.
When we presume to know the woman’s life and past, we distance ourselves from her and from our understanding of the text, for it’s not just about a poor confused woman finding Jesus, though it may include that. Too much focus on her can cause the reader to avoid the probing words of Jesus. After all, most of us haven’t had five husbands or five wives. We too often tend to place ourselves outside of the conversation looking in, glad that this poor woman finally got HER life turned around. And we go about our business. Nothing to see here. Move along.
But the entire dynamic of the chapter is not about her but about Jesus. My food is to do the will of my Father. Drink the water I give you and you’ll never be thirsty again. The fields are ready for the harvest, and for the laborers to bring it in.
I wrote a column the other week talking about the power of metaphor. When you say the Oak tree is the King of the forest, you’re intentionally helping your hearer see something new about the Oak Tree. Also, you’re adding to the way in which a king might be perceived as well. All metaphor functions this way.
If you knew who I am, you would have asked me and I would have given you Living water. My food, is to accomplish my father’s work. Food and water. Essentials of life. A description, actually, of what is needed for life.
Man, that’s my meat and drink, we way. Deer Hunting, Water Skiing, Painting Watercolors, flipping houses. Put in whatever you consider essential to your life as you. That’s my Meat and Drink. Jesus had his own take on that. The gift of life, the will of God, and the call to bring in the harvest.
The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden to till it and keep it, it says in Genesis 2. To care for the garden. The metaphor of the garden and the harvest Jesus speaks of ties together the whole duty of humanity. Anyone who grew up on a farm knows that the work never stops. With row crops, pasture, grains or livestock farming, sometimes all of them together, there’s always something to do every day, and when it’s time to plant, or time to harvest, everything else has to be laid aside, because it’s time.
Jesus’ saying about the sowers and the reapers comes from an observation of life, first observed perhaps when a farmer sows the grain one spring, dies that summer, and his son, the heir, reaps the harvest. One sows, another reaps. Can be applied to all kinds of settings.
The soldier sows his life, and the next generation reaps the peace. Think, on a smaller scale, of those who planted this community, sowed good will and hard work, and you come along and reap the benefit of a beautiful, safe place to work and live.
“He who reaps receives wages, and gathers fruit for eternal life, so that sower and reaper may rejoice together. For here the saying holds true, ‘One sows and another reaps.’ I sent you to reap that for which you did not labor; others have labored, and you have entered into their labor.”
It works in reverse, or perhaps inverse, fashion as well, one generation sowed World War I, and their children reaped Stalinism, Depression, and Nazism. In good literary fashion our story ends with the Greek word, kosmou, like cosmos, the world, “we have heard for ourselves,” say the other Samaritans to the woman, “and we know that this is indeed the Savior of the world.” That’s a big statement.
Interestingly, we don’t know exactly the woman’s disposition, how does she end up in relation to Jesus? There’s only a statement of incredulity, “Come see a man who told me all that I ever did,” and then the question, “Can this be the Messiah?” But we do read, “Many Samaritans from that city believed in him because of the woman’s testimony, “He told me all that I ever did.”
Because of the woman’s testimony. As with many Biblical episodes, this whole story points forward. The Samaritans were descendants of the tribes of Ephraim and Manasseh, sons of Joseph, most of whom disappeared into exiled by the Assyrians in 721 BC and never returned. This is the source of the legend of the Ten Lost Tribes of Israel, which fascinated many Christians and then Mormons in the 19th century as the Middle East opened up to travelers upon the decline of the Islamic Ottoman Empire.
The members of the northern tribes left behind, intermarried with the settlers the Assyrians sent to occupy the land. Rejected by the Jews, the tribes of Judah and Benjamin who returned from the later Babylonian Exile in 540 BC, the two groups had been rivals and in conflict ever since, over who was the true people of God. Who were the true heirs of the Covenant, the true Children of Abraham?
Jesus then, tells the story of the Samaritan who was a good neighbor to the Jew that was beaten, robbed and left for dead. Jesus healed the ten lepers and only one, a Samaritan Luke tells us, returned to thank Jesus, which Jesus commented on.
The salvation of Samaritans is a figure of the New Jerusalem. That is what is forward pointing about this episode. It is eschatological, in that it points us toward the eschaton, the last things. In this story we’re given a preview of the Peaceable Kingdom. No longer at this mountain, in Samaria, nor in Jerusalem, will you worship the Father, Jesus says. In this story a Jewish rabbi asks a Samaritan woman for a drink of water. That doesn’t happen in Jesus’ day. Whoever gives a cup of cold water to one of the least of these? Jesus places himself in a reverse position from the normal. “May I have a drink?” he says to the woman he’s supposed to despise. And then he and his Jewish disciples, stay two days in this Samaritan town teaching these believing Samaritans.
Sleeping in their houses? Eating at their tables? This is why John includes this story. John emphasizes a type of realized eschatology, already here, though still to come. Where Jesus is, there is the kingdom. Is Jesus here?
Jews and Samaritans at a sort of Family Reunion/Homecoming celebration is not normal, it is unexpected, it is not the way life tended to happen in the first century. And yet when Jesus is there, the kingdom is among you, and it is coming.
You shall be my witnesses, he says to the disciples, tell what you have seen, in Acts ch. 1, in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth. In Samaria? Samaria is God’s child just as Judea. No one has a monopoly on God’s grace. All sinners, all who know they are sinners, are invited to the New Jerusalem. The book of Acts was about widening the doors to the kingdom of God. The apostles heard Peter’s story of the Holy Spirit falling on Cornelius and the other Romans in Joppa, and it says: “When they heard this they were silenced. And they glorified God, saying, “Then to the Gentiles also God has granted repentance unto life.”
Whatever the situation of the Woman at the Well, Jesus speaks only the truth to her and it initiates something good and glorious. We must always and only be truth-tellers, and do the same. “I have other sheep,” Jesus said, “that are not of this fold.”
“So when the Samaritans came to him, they asked him to stay with them; and he stayed there two days. And many more believed because of his word. They said to the woman, “It is no longer because of your words that we believe, for we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this is indeed the Savior of the world.”
Sunday, March 14th I Kings 3:16-28
I remember this story from Sunday School days, perhaps most vividly the artwork from the David C. Cook Sunday School leaflets we received in class each week. The quite dramatic illustration of a soldier holding a sword in one hand and a baby by the leg in the other was memorable to say the least. Those SS leaflets were much looked forward to, by me at least. If I had to miss a Sunday, which was rare, I asked for last week’s leaflet.
I wonder how many 11-year boys there are who go to Sunday School these days, and who receive a Sunday School leaflet to take home with them. It helped us get through the sermon later that morning at church. I wonder how many nowadays would even read it. Something printed on real paper, you can’t swipe it, it has no like button.
You could take a pew pencil and work on its Bible crossword puzzle, but we had to be careful about glancing down in our lap at the puzzle or the preacher would know we weren’t listening. Of course, I now realize he knew anyway, because he could clearly see what was going on.
On the surface this is a wonderfully succinct story of a preternaturally wise judge. How does he know what to do? What if neither mother objected? What would have happened? But nonetheless, simple, clear, and impressive, with that little twist in the story.
Ah, but this is the Bible. It always pays to look more closely and when we do that, we notice something. In this discrete unit of material, the king is not ever named. The women, the prostitutes, are not named. English translations fudge a little bit so we can understand it, but in the Hebrew, the women are neither named nor differentiated. The RSV has “the one woman,” or “the other woman.” But that’s just an editorial assist. In Hebrew, it’s just “the woman.” The king, in vs. 23, doesn’t really say, “the one says” and, “the other says,” he merely states, in the Hebrew of the original story, “this one” in referring to both women.
All three play archetypal roles, a common feature in folk tales and parables, in addition to the exciting surprise ending where the hero receives the vindication. Solomon is the new, young king, inheriting David’s throne in place of his older brother, Adonijah, the oldest of David’s surviving sons, since Amnon and Absalom are dead.
David was old, on his last legs, and Adonijah stole a march on Solomon, until when David heard of it, and at Solomon’s mother, Bathsheba’s request, he had Solomon proclaimed as his rightful successor. This all happens in ch. 1, and in ch. 2 Solomon kills off his remaining enemies, including his older brother, and in ch. 3 he prays to the Lord for wisdom, or, for understanding really.
One might observe that that seems a little too convenient, and it’s fair to say, that the writer of I Kings seems to see this as well, for after the last enemy, Shimei, is struck down, at the end of ch. 2, it says, “So the kingdom was established in the hand of Solomon.”
And the very next verse, 3:1, says, “Solomon made a marriage alliance with Pharaoh, king of Egypt, and took Pharaoh’s daughter.” Egypt? He cut a deal with Egypt? This seems quite ambivalent, to say the least. For Egypt is essentially the first and definitional enemy of Israel, it’s the land they struggled to get away from at the Exodus. To desire what is evil is spoken of as wanting to “go back to Egypt.” And the name Egypt still carries a bad smell, a high level of symbolic significance, like the name, or title really, of Pharaoh.
So the writer is giving us a complex picture of a complex man. For right after this, before the temple is constructed, Solomon goes to make an offering at the great high place of Gibeah, and the Lord appeared to Solomon in a dream that night, and said, “I will grant you three wishes.”
No, wait, wrong story. But it’s kind of set up like that, isn’t it? It’s intriguing to note that the story of Aladdin’s Lamp and other similar stories do trace back to the Middle East, Aladdin being brought to Europe by a storyteller from Aleppo in Syria.
Solomon, known as Suleiman in Arabic, was a great figure in Islamic traditions, honored as a wise king and prophet. The other similarity with this story of Solomon is the actual absence of wisdom in any of the subsequent folktales’ characters that are granted their three wishes, for those stories always turn out badly.
Solomon has outmaneuvered older and more experience political enemies even before he prays for understanding and God grants him a wise and discerning mind.
Folk tales don’t often reveal character’s motivations. Oddly enough, on the surface Solomon is merely acting as a judge who rules by the law in a narrow, technical sense. We’re not told he’s shrewd and knows what will happen. Even more strange, even after the real mother gives up her rights to the child to save its life, the other mother, says, “NO! What’s fair is fair! Cut it in half.” Exodus 21:35 says, “If anyone’s bull injures someone else’s bull and it dies, the two parties are to sell the live one and divide both the money and the dead animal equally.”
We don’t know what Solomon had in mind, but it may be yet another example of the wisdom of the Law of God that brings about true justice. What we do know is, in the passage immediately prior to the story, the Lord says “Ask what I shall give you.”
This is the first sign of wisdom, for Solomon, who’s already proven to be pretty shrewd at staying alive when several want him dead, he’s no innocent weakling, nonetheless confesses that he knows nothing, he’s but a little child who can’t find his way out of a paper bag, so to speak. He asks for “an understanding mind to govern your people, that I may discern between good and evil.”
But the response of the Lord to this one request is like that to Moses’ request back in Exodus, a book of the Law. Moses asks “I pray thee, show my thy glory.” And the Lord said, “I will make all my goodness pass before you.” Are those different things? They’re certainly different words. With Moses God gave what was not requested.
Solomon wants an understanding mind, and the Lord grants him a “wise and discerning mind.” These are two different things, though both good. But Solomon does not ask to be wise, neither does he ask for wisdom. He wants understanding, knowledge essentially.
This is a case of not being wise enough to know the importance of asking for wisdom. As Solomon himself said about himself, he is “but a child.” And here again, the grace of God is manifest in the giving to Solomon not what he asked for, understanding, but Wisdom, as well as the other things for which he did not ask, riches and honor.
Have you ever been disappointed in the way God answers your prayer? We ask for yesterday’s leftover pinto beans and God gives us Rib-eye steak. We ask for Pabst Blue Ribbon and God gives us 100-year-old Port. We ask for a 93 Ford Fairlane and God gives us a Maserati. We always aim too low.
We often can’t see the gifts God gives, or understand and appreciate them, for if you do like Pabst Blue Ribbon you probably won’t appreciate 100-year-old Port. You can give your dog a bath, you can grant him a clean, fresh, nice smelling coat of fur, and what’s the first thing he’ll look for when he gets outside? That’s right. Something smelly to roll in. Roadkill is best. Perhaps a five day old dead squirrel. Our dog’s ways are not our ways, and our ways are not God’s ways.
We don’t know how to pray as we ought. We don’t know what to ask for, because we don’t have the wisdom to desire wisdom. We don’t know how to pray as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with sighs too deep for words. That’s a gift. The wisdom of God comes only from God. Every good and perfect gift comes from above.
In Isaiah, the Lord says, “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the cleverness of the clever I will thwart.” Those repetitive lines remind us that wisdom and cleverness are synonymous in this instance, similar to understanding, in contrast to the wisdom of God. As Paul goes on to say in I Corinthians 1, “Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe…. For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men.”
“For consider your call, brethren; not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth; 27 but God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise, God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong, 28 God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, 29 so that no human being might boast in the presence of God. 30 He is the source of your life in Christ Jesus, whom God made our wisdom, our righteousness and sanctification and redemption.”
Without wisdom it’s hard to recognize wisdom, but we who have been enlightened by the Spirit can at least say, it’s not what the world thinks it is. God’s wisdom often looks and sounds like folly to the worldly wise.
It’s as if God said to himself: “I need to save the world, which I created with loving care, and now it’s all going to hell in a handbasket. I know what I’ll do. I’ll go among them in disguise and let them kill me.”
You gotta admit, not the way you or I would have gone about it. Our ways are not God’s ways. Doesn’t sound like plan A to me, or even B or C. Not really a plan at all, but from the beginning, when we look back, we see that plan all through the Old Testament. We see that Abel died for Cain. God was merciful to the killer, even put a “mark” on Cain to protect him. We didn’t do Ash Wednesday, but if that’s not the mark of Cain I don’t know what it is. “You have heard that it was said, You shall not Kill. But I say unto you….”
God’s wisdom may not be grasped, or taken, or stolen like gold from the dragon’s hoard. God’s wisdom cannot be attained by study alone. God’s wisdom cannot be calculated, or discovered buried in Upstate New York on gold tablets, it may not be created, developed, or discovered. Only received.
Wisdom is a gift, whose prerequisites are also gifts, usually gifts of which we are unaware, until the full panoply of wisdom has descended upon us. I looked for wisdom in the beatitudes and could not find it; for it seems that those are some of those prerequisites to receiving wisdom. A pure heart, and a hunger for righteousness, and the spirit of mercy.
And perhaps most ironic and instructive of all, the wise do not recognize their own wisdom, do not perceive how wise they are, just as the saintly only know their own sinfulness. Wisdom grows with, by and through humility. It grows in the absence of what we would expect. Though it may grow in the presence of education and learning, those are not the prerequisites.
This is because wisdom is divine. Surely you’ve heard this before: “If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives to all men generously and without reproaching, and it will be given him. But let him ask in faith, with no doubting, for he who doubts is like a wave of the sea that is driven and tossed by the wind. For that person must not suppose that a double-minded man, unstable in all his ways, will receive anything from the Lord.”
The absence, the opposite of wisdom, is folly. This would seem to be the precondition of the verse above, “If any of you lack wisdom.” He who lacks wisdom, must be foolish right? How then would we be moved to ask for wisdom, if we are fools?
Again, the grace of God. As Paul said last week to Titus, “For the grace of God has appeared for the salvation of all men.” It pleased God. I like the sound of that. “It pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe.”
Wisdom is a gift, and reaches its fulfillment in the cross of Christ. “God chose what is low and despised in the world... He is the source of your life in Christ Jesus, whom God made our wisdom, our righteousness and sanctification and redemption.”
One woman sacrifices her right to her child, her reason for living, to save the life of her child. The son of David speaks with the wisdom of God. Abraham gives up his only beloved son, whom God spares, in the wisdom of the folly of God. Paul tells us of the two women, Sarah and Hagar in Galatians 4, women who represent the figures of Zion, the hill of Golgotha, where the sinful are saved, and Sinai, the Mountain of the Law where the law kills the sinful.
One mother, in sacrifice, brings life, to her child, and receives her child back from the arms of Wisdom; the other woman, following the law in despite of the death it would bring, offers the child to the sword.
The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, and the knowledge of the Holy One is insight. The beginning of wisdom is this: Get wisdom, and whatever you get, get insight. Know that wisdom is such to your soul; if you find it, there will be a future, and your hope will not be cut off. He who trusts in his own mind is a fool; but he who walks in wisdom will be delivered.
Sunday February 7th, John 3:16-21
Was it only last week we listened to John ch. 1, Behold the Lamb of God? That we talked about Red Letter bibles? You may remember the uncertainty that printing Jesus’ words in red highlights for the reader. Part of it is that one eventually gets around to wondering, How? How do they know?
The simple fact is that there are no quotation marks in the early Greek manuscripts of the NT, not even periods or question marks. As a matter of fact, in most of those early manuscripts, there is simply a block of text written in all capital letters. No paragraphs, no periods, nothing to tell you where one sentence ends or begins.
To the untrained eye the page looks like those puzzles you sometimes see, a WordSearch game, just a block of English alphabet where you’re supposed to find the words, horizontally, vertically, diagonally, backwards. Our printed Greek New Testaments make things much easier, but again, those are editorial decisions, just like deciding to print a sentence in one of the gospels in red or black ink.
Coming back to John this week, I decided to see if I could find any Red-Letter Bibles, and the first place I looked, the glass door cabinet in the parlor, had three Red letter Bibles. Interestingly, looking at our chapter for today, one of them a RSV from 1972, given to Donald Bachler by this church in 1976, considered that Jesus was speaking from 3:10-21. The NewKJV I found in the same cabinet had the same verses in red, but another RSV also from 1972, given to Bill, by Dad, only had vss. 3:10-15 in Red, leaving out our particular passage from today, 3:16-21.
Now I call attention to this AGAIN, for serious reasons. I’ve got nothing against “Helps” as Bible Editors and Marketers used to refer to Maps, cross References, Footnotes, Explanatory notes, etc. There’s a 1952 edition of the RSV Bible in the parlor that has that on the spine: Holy Bible. And right underneath, “Helps.” Remarkably enough, that particular edition has actually very little in the way of helps, to my mind, certainly not at the level of today’s Study Bibles, and Men’s Bibles, Women’s Bibles, Teen Bibles, Soldier’s Bibles, Recovery Bibles and on and on.
As has happened with the Mishna and the Talmud, the Holy Scriptures don’t grow in volume, but our thoughts and comments and interpretations certainly do.
But one of the problems with helps is that too much help can harm. It’s like never taking the training wheels off your bike. I see some local bikers who park in our lot outside my office window a couple of times a week, David Becker among them. All skinny people. Does riding bikes make you skinny, or does being skinny make you want to ride a bike? Regardless, they’ve got all the gear, the helmets, the shoes, the gloves, the tight lycra shorts, the windproof jackets, the gloves, the little backpacks with a tube you can drink from while still pedaling. I imagine that’s half the fun, going shopping for all the stuff! You gotta really love biking to buy all that gear and be willing to be seen in public looking like an entry in the Tour de France.
But none of those folks’ bikes have training wheels. They pedal out to Lascassas or Milton and back and they seem to know what they’re doing. They’ve done it often, they love doing it. Don’t need the training wheels they first had long ago.
Helps, are good, when they’re right, and when they don’t mislead us. But John 3 is a good example of how this gospel works overall, and bolsters our understanding of why the Bible is the Bible.
In regard to the initial question, when is Jesus speaking and when isn’t he speaking, the context is, as always, important. When we come to “For God so Loved the World,” no matter what I say about who’s speaking, how we’re intended to view who’s speaking, who did the author of the Gospel intend for us to think is speaking, “For God so loved the World,” is still the Word of God. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.”
It’s not the only verse in the Bible you should know. It’s not the only verse to give us a succinct summary of the gospel. But it is succinct, and it is a summary, and it is memorable. It’s so well known you used to see it on billboards, signs nailed to tree, fences and in the stands at televised NFL games.
Odd story: All those signs at sporting events started with a guy named Rollen Stewart. Hair dyed like a rainbow. His first major appearance was at the 1977 NBA Finals; by the time of the 1979 MLB All-Star Game, broadcasters actively tried to avoid showing him. Kind of a Where’s Waldo sort of guy, and except the camera man tried not to find him. He appeared behind NFL goal posts, near Olympic medal stands, and even at the Augusta National Golf Club. At the 1982 Indianapolis 500, he was behind the pits of race winner Gordon Johncock. He made no money from all this and was homeless for a period. Stewart's fame led to a Budweiser beer commercial and a Saturday Night Live parody sketch.
He was briefly jailed by Moscow police at the 1980 Summer Olympics. In the late 1980s, he began a string of stink bomb attacks. Targets included Robert Schuller's Crystal Cathedral, the Orange County Register, the Trinity Broadcasting Network, and a Christian bookstore.
In 1992 he was arrested and convicted of kidnapping and hostage taking on eight felony counts and was sentenced to consecutive sentences, and had parole denied seven times since 2002. He reportedly considered the rapture was due six days after his initial arrest. A sad, mixed-up fellow, with a very disjointed childhood and life. He definitely would have been in the front of the line to get in the Capitol last month. But he doesn’t deserve life in prison, having harmed no one.
On the other hand: In college sports, Tim Tebow, eleven years ago had John 3:16 written on the eye black on his cheeks during a football game his last year with the Florida Gators, at a university located in Gainesville Florida, where Steve Odom briefly lived 25 years before Tebow was born, and where Bill Hollingsworth attended college 35 years before Tebow was born. The Gators were already contenders for the BCS at the time, and after the game 94 million people googled “John 3:16,” I guess to find out what it meant. That’s a lot of people reading at least a verse, in the Bible. I for one didn’t notice a mass rush for the churches that next year, nor did stores sell out of Bibles. But I hope it helped some.
The more interesting story is that in the Broncos/Steelers playoff game in 2012, Tebow threw for 316 yards, and completion average was 31.6 yards per throw. There were some other 316 numbers that I couldn’t confirm, such as his rushing yards, the TV ratings that night and the time of possession of the ball. Makes you think.
Before the season that Tebow was to begin with the NFL, the organization banned messaging with eye black or any kind of printed message on the helmet, socks, shoes or jerseys. No messages allowed. I don’t know if you noticed, but somehow that got overlooked last fall, with various political messages approved for the end zones and on helmets.
However, I’m getting distracted by politics again. I blame my early exposure to Squirrel hunting, where you pretty much shot anything up in the tree that moved.
The good thing about Tim Tebow type messaging is that people read the Bible. The bad thing about Tim Tebow type messaging is that people read the Bible. Now, there’s more to that than just my normal snarkiness. Think about it: the form of the messaging controls the message. It gives people the idea that one verse has it all. One verse can solve all your problems. “JUST READ THIS VERSE!”
Like those Princeton seminary boys from 100 years ago who wanted to be evangelistic and wrote Bible verses around rocks and threw through the closed windows of the local brothel and got arrested. I’ve told you their story. When their Bible professor had to go downtown and go bail for them, he chewed them out saying, “Boys, boys, I know Paul says we’re Fools for Christ, but he didn’t mean for you to be damn fools!”
You see, when you read the verse then what? Where do you go from there? What do you with that? There’s more than one response, you know. God loves me? Well, and so he should. Or, God loves me? Of course he does. God loves me? What God? Which God?
There’s a sense in which the format of the messaging is not congruent with the inner sense of the gospel. This is illustrated by the story that sets up our passage today, when Nicodemus meets Jesus after dark.
Nicodemus starts off with a lot of blahblah. He’s being nice, he’s being diplomatic. What are his motives? Hard to say, really. Wants to know how to be saved? Unlikely for a religious leader. Wants to see if he can find a way to accommodate Jesus within the Pharisee movement? Possible. Wants to see if Jesus can be coopted or neutralized? Also possible. Not trying to be unfair to Nicodemus. At least he was willing to listen for a time, and ask questions.
Unless you’re born from above you can’t even see the kingdom of God, Jesus says in response to the small talk chit-chat. Nicodemus seems to think, Ah, religious controversy! I can do this with one hand tied behind my back.
Still being polite, of course, but how does one get born when one is already old? Haha, you can’t go back in the womb, can you old boy? Got you there!
“Truly I say to you, unless you’re born of the water and the Spirit, you cannot enter the kingdom of God.”
This religious debate taking place at night alerts us to the mystery of the discussion, the impossibility of trying to reveal things of the Spirit to a man without the Spirit. After verse 6, we’ve likely moved to a section of the story that was generated from the Jesus/Nicodemus back and forth and then later expanded to apply to the debate that we assume was relevant to the John’s first readers: perhaps those still in controversies with Judean synagogues, which may be why the conversation with Nicodemus was reported in the first place.
At verse 7 (and also vss. 11 and 12) the pronouns become you plural and we, perhaps you Jews and we Christians, which would anachronistic in Jesus’ day. We also see the reference to the Ascension in v. 13, which is of course after the resurrection. Not a kind of proof, but certainly relevant if we want to know where the explanatory sermonic material of the gospel writer begins.
You can helpfully read John 3:16 through the lens of the opening and closing of the gospel. It’s Incarnational, not cruciform. By that I mean that in John’s programmatic statements, he focusses on the fact that Jesus came to us as one of us. Jesus is the incarnation of God himself, God’s enfleshment. John 1, “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us and we beheld his glory.” John 20:31 “now these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in his name.”
Not: these things are written that you may understand the crucifixion, or be washed in his blood, or understand the atonement by justification, or however it might be put. Not that John is off the reservation in some way. When he says “we beheld his glory,” it’s the crucifixion he’s referring to. “They came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee, and said to him, “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.” 22 Philip went and told Andrew; then Andrew and Philip went and told Jesus. 23 Jesus answered them, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified.”
John doesn’t see things just the way Paul does, for example. For John the glory of God is most clearly seen at the nadir of human history and existence, when innocence was stomped into the dirt, when beauty, love and hope, were crucified on the cross of a criminal.
“Father, glorify your name.” Then a voice came from heaven, “I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again.” … Now is the judgment of this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out. 32 And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people[e] to myself.”
“I, when I am lifted up.”
Clearly, the Spirit reveals. It’s not by accident, that right before the apostle Thomas the last of his disciples to be “converted,” Jesus, after the resurrection, says to the gathered disciples “Receive the Holy Spirit,” and he breathes on them. Hardly a better illustration of the Incarnation anywhere, for there we have tied together the underlying meaning of the word Spirit, breath, or wind, with the physical body of the Word of God, breathing his Co2 into the faces and lungs of his disciples. “Receive the Holy Spirit.” Can’t do that with a mask on.
We are faced with a fundamental mystery in this text. This is the problem with eye black evangelism, or stones through the windows the theologically less fortunate. It’s a fortune inside a cookie.
“God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. 18 Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God. 19 And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil.”
That doesn’t have the same zing that verse 16 does all by itself, does it? Hard to market that one. Too many Christians run from the Bible, hide the Bible, bury the Bible except for maybe 4 or 5 favorite verses. But then that’s not the Bible, it’s just you and your favorites filter.
Sometimes it feels like taking the girlfriend you think you want to marry to your family reunion and she meets the crazy uncle that you look a lot alike. Hmmm. It’s embarrassing.
“And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness.” Umm, could I just go back to verse 16? NO. No you can’t. No cherry picking allowed. That’s how the text can go from “God so loved the world, to, people loved darkness in less than a minute.
You see we’re not dealing with a formula. We have no pat answer for every problem. There is no bumper sticker that can be accurate. Because when you open the Bible you’re not faced with a problem to solve, you’re not confronted with a challenge to overcome, you’re not even given a test to pass.
You’ve come to the throne of the living God. You… have to… face… God. Now. Or later. And now’s easier. “Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?” Jesus answered him, “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?”
Nicodemus had no idea where he was, who he was talking to, or what would happen. Something, somehow, clearly does happen, for at the end of the gospel of John, Nicodemus is found with Joseph of Arimathea helping to prepare Jesus’ body for burial.
Judas spends more time listening and being with Jesus than Nicodemus, but he somehow still loved the darkness. “Condemned already, because they have not believed.”
I can’t explain all the mysteries to you. I exhort you not to turn away in frustration, not to grow accustomed to the mysterious, using that as an excuse for spiritual laziness. In times like today, when Christians struggle to understand and come to terms with the social upheavals of our world, I give you the unjust judge of Jesus’ parable in Luke 18. “‘because this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice,’ And the Lord said, “Listen to what the unjust judge says.”’
The parable is about the need to pray and not lose heart, Luke says. “And yet, when the Son of Man comes,” said Jesus, “will he find faith on earth?”
Sunday, January 31st John 1:29-42
To come to the simple language of John after grappling with the unfamiliarity of Jude should make our understanding of this text simple and easy. This is more familiar territory, John the Baptist, Andrew and Peter, Philip and Nathanael. No more Enochs or Balaams, fruitless trees or waterless clouds.
And partly this familiarity is because of repetition. John is certainly the most popular of the 4 gospels in modern times, easier to read and not feel entirely lost. Our understanding of the gospel is more akin to John’s than Matthew’s, for just that reason. And John is written to have a wider applicability. John tells us, near the end of the book, his reasons for writing, “These things are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God.”
Jude writes to a specific congregation or maybe group of congregations, because of the conflict they’re going through. And nobody likes conflict. Jude says “May mercy, peace, and love be multiplied to you.” Not more conflict. But he doesn’t dodge it either; instead he calls them to “Contend for the faith,” which seems to consist of, for Jude, as vs. 20 says, building up your faith, praying in the Holy Spirit, keeping yourself in the love of God, and waiting for Christ’s mercy.
As well as, regarding the interlopers he refers to, convince some, save some and have mercy on some. So it’s not really a “storm the citadel” kind of message, but, after the description of those wandering stars, a carefully thought-out response that matches actions with the essences of the Christian faith; mercy, peace, and love.
Our gospel today proceeds by describing events, but from a particular perspective, with a particular purpose in mind; “that you may believe.” So one thing to notice in this part of ch. 1 is names and titles.
We call the man who says of Jesus, “Behold the Lamb of God,” John the Baptist, but John the gospel writer never gives him that name. What does he say?
“There was a man sent from God, whose name was John.” This comes at the beginning, in verse 5 of the prologue. This John is important and it’s likely he had his own disciples, as vs. 35 says, “standing with two of his disciples.” And even after the Resurrection there were still disciples of the Baptist, as we read in Acts 19. The Baptist, though he says he’s not THE PROPHET mentioned back in vs. 21, is nonetheless a prophet of God, and perhaps a couple of decades later even, Paul runs into John’s disciples in Ephesus, way over in Western Turkey. John’s movement was powerful, deep and long-lasting.
He’s an important witness, and it is in this role as Witness, perhaps more important than his role as Baptizer, that our Gospel today highlights his words.
Priests and Levites, officials from Jerusalem in Judea, had come across the Jordan to where John was, to ask him who he was in those ten verses prior to our lesson for today, if he was Elijah, or THE Prophet, or the Christ.
When John the next day sees Jesus, he bears witness, he does what he was born to do. John was born to point to Jesus. “Behold the Lamb of God.” We hear this and another “Behold,” loud and clear in these verses, but perhaps because it’s less forthright, the language is less striking, and we’re not clear as to its purpose, we pay less attention to the other twice repeated statement by John: “I myself did not know him.”
Vs 31 says, “I myself did not know him; but I came baptizing with water for this reason, that he might be revealed to Israel.” And then again in verse 33: “I myself did not know him, but the one who sent me to baptize with water said to me, ‘He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain is the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.’”
Perhaps because books were scarce in the ancient world, and paper was expensive, writers chose their words carefully. They aimed their expressions. Like old machinists, they handcrafted every part to fit exactly and carefully. Partly this is because they thought and wrote in the only idioms they heard and read, which were of their time.
You see this not just in the Bible, but I do think especially in the Bible, though maybe I just think that because it’s what I know best. No matter.
What is clear is that this writer takes what he knows of the Baptizer and puts in a repetitive phrase where it doesn’t fit well, where it sticks out a bit. “I myself did not know him, twice, is a type of clumsiness even writers today try to avoid. They typically describe those kinds of series in groups of three.
I myself did not know him, but…
I myself had not met him, but….
I myself would not have recognized him, but….
That’s how it normally works. You say the same thing three different ways to give pleasure to the reader and avoid sounding incapable of expanding on what you mean, or unqualified to develop rounder viewpoint, or unable to build up a more complete understanding. Like that. In threes.
But this writer is not an ordinary rhetorician. Just as the gospel events break and crack open the standard view of the world itself, the best is crucified, the greatest is the lowest, the first is the last, so John stops at two. I myself did not know him. I myself did not know him.
But for this I came to baptize with water, that he might be revealed to Israel. But he who sent me to baptize with water said to me, He on whom you see the Spirit descend and abide, this is he who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.
The halt at one repetition of “I myself….” Focuses our attention on what is then said: “I came that he might be revealed. And….He who sent me said to me, he on whom you see….”
HE…..said to ME…This is language of the prophet. HE said to me.
It’s an interesting way to describe Jesus: He who baptizes with the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit fell on Saul in I Samuel, and they said, “Is Saul among the prophets?” In Numbers 11 the Spirit rested on Eldad and Medad (love those names. Got to be twins, right? Eldad and Medad. Reminds me of Pete and Repeat). Eldad and Medad had not gone out to the Tent of Meeting to receive the Spirit like the 70 elders, and when Joshua said Moses should forbid them from prophesying, Moses said, “Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets, that the Lord would put his spirit upon them!”
The Spirit is from God, and John bears witness to what was revealed to him, that this man, the Lamb of God, the Son of God, baptizes with the Holy Spirit. John testifies, this one, on whom the Spirit descended and abides, is also the giver of the Holy Spirit. And that complicated description is fleshed out in several ways in ch. 1, which we’ll go through.
But right after this we have these beautiful encounters that follow, when Jesus sees there are already two of John’s disciples following him and says, “What are you seeking?” They respond, “Rabbi, which means teacher John tells us, where are you staying?” And Jesus says, “Come and See.”
One of those two, Andrew, then goes and tells his brother, Simon, We have found the Messiah (which means Christ, John tells us). He brought him to Jesus, who looked at him and said, “You are Simon son of John. You are to be called Cephas” (which is translated Peter.”
Now, as we roll through the narrative it’s easy to miss a couple of things. First, notice this odd translating that’s going on. Why do we learn here that Rabbi means Teacher, and Messiah Christ, and even Cephas Peter? Well, we think, maybe John’s writing to all Greek speakers. Maybe it’s late in the century, maybe most of the church where he finds himself is Greek and they don’t know these Aramaic words.
But if that’s the case, why not just use Greek? The rest of it is in Greek. After all Simon is called Peter back in vs 40 before the translation of Cephas is explained in vs 42. Fred Craddock says that for the church to hold on to the old words without even knowing what they mean is a little too close to magic. Like some Holy Power Word, Abracadabra, Hocus Pocus!
But they’re not simply dropped, nor are they elevated. They’re kept, but translated. To have lost the words, to have only a translation would have been cut off from the past, orphaned.
John’s handling of the words connects Jerusalem with Rome, and London, and Prague and Murfreesboro and Beijing. Jesus is a Jew who spoke Aramaic. He lived in a particular place and time. But he also came for people of all sorts and times and places. These words are witnesses, not sacred vessels that cannot be handled and used. The Bible is the church’s book, and the church is the body of Christ. We, speaking his word, testify to him. He is ours, he is for us, and we are for him.
Last thing not to miss. Lots of titles. Did you hear that in the reading? It’s a very important aspect of revelation. When we read the gospels, our first impression is of what Jesus says and does. That’s how we know him. He heals the sick. He preaches the good news of God’s kingdom. He’s obedient to his Father. The three of those comprise the gospel story.
But there’s a type of agnosticism of the literalists, that say, “I’m a Red-letter Christian! I just go by what Jesus said! All the rest of that is just opinion, just interpretation!” This is an ancient and grave heresy reborn, like they all are from time to time.
First of all, it’s silly to think John wrote in two kinds of ink. Right? Who put those words in red ink? Some editor. Maybe it’s helpful, maybe it’s accurate, maybe not. But leaving ink color aside, it’s a simplistic error to think there’s some sort of gradation between what John says Jesus said, and what John says about Jesus. John says it all. Matthew, Mark, Luke, they are the authors of the whole gospels they write. The church is built, the Bible says, upon the foundation of the prophets and apostles. The church had no New Testament for a century at least; it was the apostolic testimony to which they clung. Handed down from one trusted teacher to another. And Romans, Hebrews, and I Peter and the rest of it are not some sort of second-class scripture, subordinate to what someone thinks they can demonstrate that Jesus said. The various scriptures are witnesses to God’s Word.
We know Jesus from the narrative of the gospels, but not just the narrative. The rereading, the things we stumble over, puzzle over, notice for the first time. All of this is not accidental.
Ch. 1 starts us off with John’s testimony, the hearing of that testimony to Jesus by his own disciples, who then become disciples of Jesus, as he’s pointed out by John. Jesus invites Andrew, Andrew invites Peter, Jesus finds Philip and Philip finds Nathanael.
Ch. 1 is very programmatic. Disciples are evangelists in training. Evangelism is not an optional aspect of who they/we are. That’s the thrust of the narrative direction of vss 19-51.
But as we go along, we see some descriptions by John and some by Jesus of who he is. From verse 1, In the beginning was the Word of God. The rest of the prologue expands upon that to tell us in v. 14: “And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.”
But just in ch. 1, no accident, for this is the beginning of John’s story, we have six additional titles for Jesus. That’s a lot for one chapter. Son of God is first referenced in the prologue and then the Baptist says “I have borne witness that this is the Son of God.” As does Nathanael who says ecstatically, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God!”
IN that encounter are a couple of repeats, for it’s Andrew who first asked him, Rabbi, where are you staying, and Son of God is John’s initial witness.
Of course, John’s heralding in the hearing of Andrew and others, “Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world,” is central to this gospel writer’s understanding of Jesus, for nowhere else in the NT is this phrase used. Clearly a reference to the Passover Lamb, whose blood protects the Hebrews in Egypt from the destroyer, and a reference to Isaiah; “He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he opened not his mouth; like a lamb that is led to the slaughter”
But Nathanael brings in a whole new political aspect when he says You are the King of Israel! This is getting dangerous, just as Andrew also skates close to the edge of sedition when he says to Simon, We have found the Messiah, the Christ.
And I would argue it’s no accident that this first episode, a discrete unit before the Wedding in Cana, ends with Jesus’ words to Nathanael, “Very truly, I tell you, you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.”
Here are the figures of Jacob’s ladder with the angels ascending and descending, and that of the Son of Man, which is from Daniel 7. This ties us to the promise to Jacob, the father of the 12 tribes, and to the Son of Man in Daniel, where it says: and behold, with the clouds of heaven
there came one like a son of man,
and he came to the Ancient of Days
and was presented before him.
14 And to him was given dominion
and glory and kingdom,
that all peoples, nations, and languages
should serve him;
his dominion is an everlasting dominion,
which shall not pass away,
and his kingdom one
that shall not be destroyed.
The content of the revelation is the movement of Jesus’ actions, the accomplishment of his words, and the titles that place him in the center of God’s redemptive work through the covenant with Abraham. None of the titles are of any sense without the content delivered by the scriptures of the day, Genesis through Malachi.
To be a disciple is not only to follow, and lead others to follow, but to know whom we are following, for we cannot tell others who he is if we do not know him and have not encountered him in his true identity presented to us in the books of all the witnesses.
We’re here to know Jesus Christ, and make him known to others.
Sunday, January 24th- The Letter of Jude
We used to hear a story in seminary from a professor who said, ‘All young preachers need to keep in mind that your congregation never wakes up on Sunday morning wondering what ever happened to the Jebusites?” Jebusites being the ancient obscure tribe of Canaanites that once occupied Jerusalem before the time of David.
And so, I don’t imagine Jude has been living in your head all week, but he has been in mine. In reading up on Jude, one of my suppositions has been confirmed when a commentary writer said “I have never heard a sermon preached on the letter of Jude.” And D.J. Rowster’s article on Jude from 1974 was titled, “The Most Neglected Book in the New Testament.” Which is certainly applicable to the editors of the Revised Common Lectionary, who left Jude out entirely. No place in three years of Sundays for even a mention of Jude.
Which is too bad, for Jude is a likable, remarkable, edifying letter. Its pleasant to walk into a room not knowing whom or what to expect and recognizing a number of people. In Jude, in addition to Jesus right at the beginning, there’s Moses, and Enoch, who went to be with God without dying, there’s Adam and Cain. Familiar names, characters well known to Bible readers.
A little less well known are names like Balaam, who’s better remembered for his talking jackass, Korah, the rebel against Moses’ authority, the angel Michael, who’s mentioned in Daniel and Revelation, and of course those two brothers, Jude and James.
Those last two are familiar names, perhaps too familiar because there are several of them in the New Testament. Two of the apostles were named Jude, or Judas, and Mark tells us Jesus had a brother named Jude, and there was a prophet by that name in Acts 15. And at least three James’ as well, one a brother of Jesus and likely the author of the letter by that name.
Jude’s place in the New Testament is a good argument for his being Jesus’ brother, since he tells us he’s the brother of James, a likely roundabout way of telling us who else is his brother.
But at the start of the letter he refers to his brother Jesus as Master and Lord. He tells us about his promised return in v. 14 with “Ten thousand of his holy ones to execute judgment.” That daunting promise is perhaps balanced by the exhortation in vs. 21 “to look forward to the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ.” At the beginning and end of the letter, Jesus keeps us safe and secure from falling. Apostles of Christ are mentioned in v. 17 and the cross and resurrection are implied by the promise of his Second Coming.
But of course 25 verses can’t contain everything. A letter from your sister in Oregon with a recipe for Pumpkin Pie says much more to you than just how to make a pie. It says more to you than it would to me. Timing, history, relationship, appropriateness count for a lot. If she says, “make sure to use condensed milk,” and, ‘I hope Aunt Susie likes it.” That’s a lot more appropriate than of course, “grind up the rat poison finely,” or, “bake three hours at 475”. You’d know something was wrong.
Those to whom Jude’s letter was sent certainly heard more than we do today. But we can still hear a lot. And the way we hear that is through tradition. The tradition of the ancient hand-copied manuscripts, the tradition of the translators, the tradition of the commentators, of the preachers. No one comes to a Bible passage in an unmediated fashion. We did not discover this book for the first time. Others have studied it before us. We rely on, and live within, the communion of saints. Just as the dead Abel’s blood cried out to God for vengeance, so the life blood that Jerome and so many others poured into their work of handing down the scriptures continues to speak. It is the assistance, guidance and care of the rest of the Body of Christ through time that enables us to hear, to read and to understand.
All of the above categories, scholars of various kinds, have their own rules of operation, and standards of judgment which have not been invented or discovered by them, but received, handed down, passed on, improved upon, with a wealth, a treasure of understandings and practices.
Jude assumes, in vs. 5, that his readers have been instructed “in the faith;” that they, and we, are fully informed. He then says, in a remarkable statement, that Jesus once for all saved a people out of the land of Egypt.
Now, we didn’t actually hear that in our lesson because many modern translations are a bit uncomfortable with the identification of Jesus with the Lord of the Exodus out of Egypt. The modern Greek version of the New Testament favors the word “Lord” over the word “Jesus.” But sometimes tradition uses part of the tradition to challenge another part. Bruce Metzger, in his Textual Commentary on the Greek NT, mentions that one prime rule of settling a textual issue is going with the more difficult, less likely version when there’s a disagreement. The reasoning is that the reading “Jesus saved a people out of the land of Egypt” in v. 5, rather than “the Lord saved a people out of Egypt,” is most likely because early copyists would not have been likely to change Lord to Jesus in that verse, but rather the reverse. Plus, the reading of Jesus in verse 5 has the oldest, best and most manuscript support.
So Jesus, Jude’s brother, is the acting agent in what Jude proffers as the upcoming solution to these intruders, these interlopers disturbing the church, these waterless clouds and wandering stars, for whom the deepest darkness has been reserved forever.
All through this letter, the character and attributes of God are predicated of Jesus. Jude calls himself a servant of Jesus Christ, the very one who is spoken of in the prophets as the servant of the God, the embodiment of Israel, an entire people chosen, out of all other peoples, to serve the living God.
In verse 2, we read of Jude’s desire, having addressed those who are kept safe by Jesus Christ, that mercy, peace, and love be multiplied to his readers, and thus also to us. In passing let’s note that the brother of Jesus Christ prays for us, that the three most desirable things in this life might be MULTIPLIED to us. Mercy. Peace. Love. If you have those you have God. For truly they can be given only by God.
Vs. 4 also indicates that Jude, who had originally planned to write a different letter, as we see in v. 3, now speaks of those who have somehow gained admission to the fellowship of the church, the ungodly persons who pervert the grace of God into licentiousness and deny our ONLY Master and Lord, Jesus Christ.
Again, Jesus is described in these godly opposites from those who pervert God’s grace. This ascription of divine character to Jesus amplified by vs. 5, when he “saved a people out of Egypt,” is expanded in vs. 23 when mercy is ascribed to Jesus. “Wait for the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ unto eternal life.”
And Jude closes with a doxology in the last verse, “to the only God our savior, through Jesus Christ our Lord, be glory, mighty, dominion and authority, before all time, and now, and forever. Amen”
We see that Jude, like the other New Testament books, speaks in the same tradition as Deuteronomy; “Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one”. “Glory to God our savior,” he says, “through Jesus Christ our Lord.” In Jude’s day, they haven’t worked out all the theological formulas of the Trinity yet, but they know who God is. God is he who raised Jesus Christ from the dead. God is our Savior. We know him, and praise him, in our doxologies, through the Lord, Jesus Christ. Jude and James, and Peter and Paul and John, are part of the kingdom of righteousness preached by Moses and Isaiah and Malachi. They are not upstarts of some new religion, but servants of the living God, who made the world and all that is in it.
The word of Jude also speaks powerfully to our situation today as Americans living in a time of division and uncertainty. Each successive presidential election alarms one group of Christians or another, cheers one set and depresses another. Too often we believe that everything hangs on who’s in office, who holds power, who is President, who controls the government.
“Tho' the cause of evil prosper,
Yet the truth alone is strong;
Tho' her portion be the scaffold,
And upon the throne be wrong:
Yet that scaffold sways the future,
And, behind the dim unknown,
Standeth God within the shadow,
Keeping watch above His own.”
There may be an obelisk to George Washington at the center of our Capitol city, taller than any church in that city, graven images of Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln may repose in what appear to be Temples on the National Mall, but in spite of our politics, for the sake of the limited good which can be accomplished through politics, and some good can always be accomplished, we need to focus on these words:
“before all time, and now, and forever.”
The United States was and hopefully still is, a haven of hope because it allowed any and all to worship and serve him who is before all time. And though we’ve seen some states closing churches and synagogues, and though we’ve seen the growing injustice in the shape of the law and court system, is not the Christian still free? Free in the way Christians have always been free.
Were Christians not free under Nero, or Hadrian, or Diocletian? Did God not hear the prayer of Christians under Emperor Frederick, or Henry the VIII, or Louis the XIV?
The blessings of liberty, political liberty, are substantial and real, but they can also be dangerous and misleading when we mistake liberty for license, and freedom for endless choice. True freedom is only given through that man constrained by death on a cross, for freedom is an attribute of God given to man made in the image of God and, when freed from slavery to sin, free to be truly human.
It is those who die in and with Jesus Christ who live in freedom, for what can man do to us who live in and under the hands of God. “The Lord is my light and my salvation, of whom shall I be afraid?”
Who more free than Paul, living in danger and privation, constrained to preach the gospel right up to the point of his execution? Or Peter, crucified upside down? Or 22-year-old Perpetua, separated from her infant child husband and torn to pieces by wild beasts in celebration of the birthday of Emperor Septimius Severus, all because she wouldn’t say, “I renounce Jesus Christ.”
Freedom is NOT just another word for nothing left to lose. Freedom is not just endless consumer choice with the riches of the world piled at our feet. Freedom is forgiving an enemy, and loving those who hate us. Freedom is praying for those who mistreat us and spitefully misuse us. Freedom is the ability to do what’s right, when all around are doing what is wrong. Freedom is hearing the call and obeying, to enter by strait gate and the narrow door.
In the last days there will be ungodly scoffers, “but you, beloved, build yourselves up on your most holy faith; pray in the Holy Spirit; 21 keep yourselves in the love of God; wait for the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ unto eternal life.”
Sunday, January 17th I Corinthians 10:1-14
Well, it’s been a crazy couple of weeks, hasn’t it? While the country was mesmerized by the Buffalo headdress-wearing Shaman guy presiding at the Podium of the Senate, and by the way, he may have gotten as much accomplished in his 15 minutes in office as many previous Senate Majority leaders have.
But while all this was going on, and the craziness turned ugly and violent very quickly, which is what craziness does best, while this is all happening and I’m trying to read about it all on my phone, I’ve got a very energetic toddler constantly trying to climb into my lap so I can read,
“This old man, he played one, he played Knick Knack on my thumb, with a Knick knack paddywack, give the dog a bone, this old man came rolling home.” And two, and three, and so on. And this old man finally did roll home Friday night on Southwest Airlines, just in time to learn that the mayors of New York City, and Chicago, have called for an end to lockdowns because the cure is worse than the disease! What consummate timing! I mistakenly thought it would all be over after the election, but turns out it’s actually the inauguration. And where have I heard that cure is worse than the disease before? And why was the mayor of LA left off the email distribution list? They’re still in their bunkers as far as I can tell. And then, good old Newsweek reports, and this is the genuine headline from their “magazine:” COVID Lockdowns May Have No Clear Benefit vs Other Voluntary Measures, International Study Shows. Where would we be without “studies?”
I’m grateful for the two weeks’ vacation to get my daughter settled back into her house and begin the process of visitations, etc. that go along with a divorce. And thank you to Mike and Nicole Martin and Roger Osborne who filled in the pulpit while I was out.
During our two weeks in Dallas, my daughter had doctor visits, worked at her part time job for Central Christian Church in Dallas, and sent out lots of resumes. I have come home with a renewed admiration for mothers of toddlers and mothers of two, three, four and more young children.
I’m getting to the age where I look forward to my Sunday afternoon nap, but never have I looked forward to a nap as much as I have looked forward to my granddaughter’s naps this last couple of weeks. Of course, toddlers are delightful to be around, most of the time, and they grow up fast. But I had forgotten over the last 30 years just how much work is involved in doing all the things that have to be done. And really, I was just the back-up.
The political craziness on both sides of the aisle, over the last few weeks, seems like the appropriate icing on the cake of the year 2020, does it not? It was not a good year for most people, unless you were a governor or mayor who had always wanted to be a dictator, or maybe if you were a tech billionaire, or owned a lot of stock in Clorox and gained 70% over the year. Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, Bill Gates. A lot of folks are really cleaning up, so to speak.
Most people, though, have had a rough year. There are plenty of people who don’t have any “back-up” when they get laid off. Some have the privilege of working from home, but how do you frame up a house, from home? How do you load up a semi, from home? How do you guard a prison, or process meat, or wait tables, from home? I know it’s not 1956 anymore, I’d still be in diapers if it was, but I still blame the Communist Party of China for much of the chaos recently.
Of course, if we are to understand I Corinthians 10, we need to become more aware of the idolatrous tendencies of most Americans, many Christians included, for we are all convinced of the blessings of wealth, and not as wary of its dangers as we should be. And of course, the blessings are obvious, and the dangers less so, hidden, delayed.
Idolatry, in myriad forms, is certainly the problem for the church in Corinth, that we heard about in our reading today. Idolatry, to be most effective, needs no statue of wood or stone or precious metal to infect the human hear and turn it toward evil. It merely needs a focus, an object of desire and a short-term reward.
Power is an idol, and one of the most enticing. This is one reason why George Washington really was a great man, and a great political leader, with a greatness nearly incomprehensible to most politicians.
For all intents and purposes, the War with Great Britain had ended at Yorktown in 1781. The Treaty of Paris, formally ending hostilities, was signed in September of 1783, and on December 23 of that year, Washington resigned his Commission from Congress, such as it was at that stage. His remarks were: Happy in the confirmation of our Independence and Sovereignty, and pleased with the opportunity afforded the United States of becoming a respectable Nation, I resign with satisfaction the Appointment I accepted with diffidence.…
I consider it an indispensable duty to close this last solemn act of my Official life, by commending the Interests of our dearest Country to the protection of Almighty God, and those who have the superintendence of them, to his holy keeping.
Having now finished the work assigned me, I retire from the great theatre of Action; and bidding an Affectionate farewell to this August body under whose orders I have so long acted, I here offer my Commission, and take my leave of all the employments of public life.
— George Washington
Having defeated the greatest military power in the world, most at home and abroad assumed Washington would be the leader of the country, whether King or Prince or what have you. Virtually nothing stood in his way. His officers would certainly have backed him. In 1783 the American-born painter Benjamin West was in England painting the portrait of King George III. When the King asked what General Washington planned to do now that he had won the war West replied: "They say he will return to his farm." King George paused, and said: "If he does that, he will be the greatest man in the world."
Power is hard to resist. It is intoxicating and alluring. Think of all the good you could do! Certainly that thought and many others had crossed Washington’s mind. He went home for five years, to his farm, and when the country pleaded with him to allow himself to be a candidate for the Constitutionally new office of President, he received 100% of the votes of the electoral college of that day, as well as at his reelection in 1792.
There are those who saw the hand of God in these and other events surrounding the founding of this country. Certainly the designers of the Great Seal, with its motto, Annuit Coeptis, He has favored our undertakings, did.
Power is dangerous, though most of us don’t experience the idolatrous intoxication of “Great” power, and so are spared that particular danger. But Shakespeare recognized that power can have its effect on any of us, when Hamlet references the “insolence of office” in his famous soliloquy.
We’ve all been on the receiving end of that, whether it’s simply a government clerk, a bank officer, an unjust school official, whoever it may be. Even the pettiest of powers clung to with a tight grasp, can lead us astray. We’re all vulnerable to the temptation. Almost all, anyway. There were, still are, people like George Washington.
But there are also people like Tom Cruise, who recently deployed two walking robots to stalk around his movie set for Mission Impossible monitoring and surveilling all the crew and actors to make sure they’re not violating his covid-19 orders about regarding masks and distancing.
The irony is thick here, and there’s nothing at all creepy about this, but at least Tom won’t have to keep going on five-minute profanity laced rants at people who don’t follow his simple rules.
Now I Corinthians 10 has a great deal to say about temptation to idolatry and other sins, and chapters 6, and 8 and 9 are taken up with the dangers of eating food offered to idols in the pagan temples or at home, so the temptations of idolatry are the overall context when we get to ch. 10.
It is an astonishing passage for many reasons, not the least of which is that in this letter to a mostly if not entirely Gentile audience, Paul says, right there in verse 1, “I want you know, brothers, that our fathers were all under the cloud.” Of course, as we learn when we keep reading, the cloud is the cloud that went before Israelites at night on their journey from Mt. Sinai through the wilderness, as did the pillar of fire at night. Or, as one Sunday School child delightfully remembered his mixed-up Bible stories, “Lot’s wife was a pillar of salt by day and a ball of fire by night.”
But where does this “our fathers” come from. In any context but this one that is just nonsense. No gentile Greek or Roman would have considered Moses and the Israelites to be his forefathers. “Jews here. Everybody else, over there!”
Paul’s casual assertion, all more powerful for being casual and assumed, is that those now in the body of Christ are children of God, members of the covenant of God’s grace, that began with Abraham’s faith. For just as the Exodus began with Liberation before there was Law, so the call of Abraham began in Faith, before he was circumcised, as Paul points out elsewhere.
What must this mean? Many things. Our Bible is the Jews’ Bible. It was theirs first, and once it’s author, the son of God, taught the apostles how to read it, it becomes the testimony that points to him, like a literary John the Baptist. Matthew is a gospel because Isaiah is the oracle of God. Mark is a gospel because Malachi heard and heeded the Word of God.
Our Fathers. Our fathers were all under the cloud. Not their fathers. Ours. We’re adopted, adopted by our creator, into his family, no longer wandering, no longer spiritually homeless.
This also means we take the Law and the Prophets and the Writings seriously. The covenant of Law is not our covenant, it was a preparation of a specific people and culture to understand and receive and live with God’s holiness. To be a light to the nations, and a servant to the world, being the physical people from whom our physical redemption and resurrection originates, through the Jew, once dead and now alive, Jesus Christ.
The political nation of Israel itself, once dead, nothing, nowhere, now a beacon of peace and prosperity, is a figure of that Jew, a figure of its servant and savior, dead, and then raised from the kingdom of darkness into the new creation, into which we shall also follow.
God did not give up on his first plan and send Jesus as plan B. Our fathers were under the cloud. Same family. I honor and claim all the fathers and mothers I can learn about, simply because they’re mine. We all come from a multitude of families. Odoms and Caves and Baileys and Hillises, and Edges and Godbees, and Jacksons and Clinches, those are some of my names.
But I’ve been adopted, simply out of love, by grace, into a new family. And my fathers were under the cloud. They passed through the Red Sea, they were “baptized into Moses” in the sea, they ate and drank the sacraments of wilderness wandering, manna gathered six days a week, and water that came from the Rock, and the Rock was Christ.
All of this should be the foundation for all Christian Biblical Interpretation. The book of Numbers says nothing about this Rock from which the water flowed being Christ. It says nothing about the Rock following them through the desert. Paul says they drank from the supernatural Rock, the spiritual Rock, the pneumatikos petros is his original language. Pneuma for Sprit.
Paul is bridging time, almost erasing time with the starkness of his figurative language. He doesn’t say it was like Christ. He doesn’t say being under the cloud, or going through the Red Sea, and following Moses was like being baptize. He says “They were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea.”
The immediacy of his language, no connecting terms, but copulative terms, “The Rock was Christ,” place his readers, the Corinthians, and by powerful analogy, you and I.
And he gives them and us warnings which we therefore must heed diligently.
First, he says, referring to vss 6-11, that “with most of them,” those baptized and those who ate drank from Christ, “with most of them God was not pleased, for they were overthrown in the wilderness.
He immediately tells us and the Corinthians, “These things are warnings, not to desire evil as they did.” This is a categorization he uses to describe all the next four things he references that happened in the wilderness, and by connection with his context, the temptations the Corinthians and we ourselves face. Do not desire evil.
There are four episodes he then brings up. First: the episode of the Golden Calf at Mt. Sinai. Our RSV, which says “dance” and NRSV tiptoe a bit here. “They sat down to drink and rose up to play.” This was not catch football after a Thanksgiving Dinner. This was only “play” in the sense of the “play” in old Hugh Hefner’s Playboy mansions. They sat down to drink and then had an orgy would be a more accurate translation. Max Zerwick translates “paidzo” as “amuse themselves,” which is very genteel.
The second episode referred to is in Numbers 25, in which God visited a plague upon his people for their fornication with the people of Moab. “We must not indulge in immorality as some of them did, and 23,000 fell in a single day.”
The third episode, “We must not put Christ to the test, as some of them did, and were destroyed by serpents.” Some of them, complaining about the food on this hiking trip, in Numbers 21, “put Christ to the test.” 21:5 says, “the people spoke against God and against Moses, “For there is no food and not water, and we loathe this worthless food.” Clearly there was food, they just didn’t like it. In complaining against God and Moses, they put Christ to the test. Very intriguing timeline. But the incarnation of God in the man Jesus Christ is eternal. Not a creature of time, though born in time. The second person of the Trinity. Who is he? If not Jesus the Christ, he is nobody. There is no other Christ, no alternate Christ. Revelation refers to the “Lamb slain from the foundations of the world.” Not limited to 33 AD. They put Christ to the test, and it’s happening now, today, in too many churches and Christian hearts.
The Fourth Episode, most likely from Numbers 14, is when the people grumbled, or murmured, against the leadership of Moses and Aaron. “And all the people of Israel murmured against Moses and Aaron; the whole congregation said to them, “Would that we had died in the land of Egypt! Or would that we had died in this wilderness! 3 Why does the Lord bring us into this land, to fall by the sword? Our wives and our little ones will become a prey; would it not be better for us to go back to Egypt?”
4 And they said to one another, “Let us choose a captain, and go back to Egypt.”
I’m not certain to which episode Paul refers here, but Numbers 14 fits, except it does not have a “destroyer,” which is only found in Exodus 12, the time of Passover, which is not about grumbling. But again, none of the Old Testament has a Rock that followed them through the wilderness. Paul exercises his apostolic freedom of the Spirit to explain his warnings.
He softens his language a bit, only a bit, when he says these things happed to them as a warning, and were written down for our instruction. There’s a fine line there, that many cross, though I don’t recommend it.
He concludes with written admonishing his readers not to be proud and think because he’s currently “standing” he can’t also fall. And you needn’t fear temptation, for God gives the strength to resist temptation to those who desire it. A way to escape.
As Martin Luther so pointedly remarked, “I can’t stop the bird from flying over my head, but I don’t have to let it build a nest in my hair.”
And he closes with the re-establishment of his context. Flee the worship of idols. Shun the worship of idols. Don’t put Christ to the test in these pagan temples, don’t let the birds build nests in your hair.
Idolatry is a reality in our world today. It’s never been stronger. It is all around us. Identify it, isolate it, and drive it from your life and your heart. For these verses are not just instruction, verse11, they’re also warnings for us, vs. 6.
A warning is an act of kindness. An extension of grace. A helping hand. Do not despise the word that is spoken so long ago, and again today.
December 27th, Isaiah 62:1-12
Because we follow and worship a Jew, we have to read stuff like this 62nd chapter of Isaiah in our gatherings. We are a community of believers, and our tradition of gathering began on the first day of that week when the disciples were huddled together in an upper room, not knowing what might happen next. Jesus had been crucified that Friday and now they were hearing all kinds of crazy rumors.
“On the evening of that day, the first day of the week, the doors being shut where the disciples were, for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said to them, “Peace be with you.””
We’re here today because they were there that day. Tradition means that which is handed on, and Jesus handed on to his disciples these books. That is to say, he himself passed on the tradition of reading and believing Deuteronomy, and Psalms, and Isaiah and the rest of the scriptures. Twice, we read in Luke, Jesus’ guidance for the disciples on how to read the Bible: In 24:25, he said: “O foolish men, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! 26 Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory?” 27 And beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them in all the scriptures the things concerning himself.” And again, in the same chapter, also after the resurrection, in verse 44, “Then he said to them, “These are my words which I spoke to you, while I was still with you, that everything written about me in the law of Moses and the prophets and the psalms must be fulfilled.” 45 Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures.”
This is our book because it’s Jesus’ book, even if we can’t always figure out what it means at first glance. You and I live in the world Ernest Hemingway. Known for his simple, straightforward writing style, we’ve come to expect that initial, immediate simplicity and clarity. We’re not used to struggling to understand what we read, unless it’s perhaps a Physics textbook, or the instructions for assembling a new toy with translated instructions.
Here’s the first line of Hemingway’s short story “A Way You’ll Never Be.”
“The attack had gone across the field, been held up by machine-gun fire from the sunken road and from the group of farmhouses, encountered no resistance in the town, and reached the bank of the river.” That’s pretty clear.
Here’s his The Old Man and the Sea: He was an old man who fished alone in a skiff in the Gulf Stream and he had gone eighty-four days now without taking a fish. What do you say about something like that? Simple declarative sentence. Describes a person and what he does and what had happened to him.
And then there’s Isaiah: “For Zion’s sake I will not keep silent, and for Jerusalem’s sake I will not rest, until her vindication goes forth as brightness, and her salvation as a burning torch.”
Who’s speaking? Who’s Zion? Not keep silent about what? Is Jerusalem the same as Zion? How does not resting accomplish the speaker’s purpose? What exactly is the speaker doing, that he should not rest until whatever this vindication is goes forth as brightness? How does an abstraction go forth, and how is salvation, whatever that might be in this context, relate to a burning torch? And why does he seem to say everything twice, in a different manner?
So many questions. So much pondering and wondering. You can see why many people prefer Hemingway, or John Grisham, or Danielle Steele, or insert favorite writer here. Even when we read a mystery, there are many cues throughout the book that the writer will reveal the simple answer to the question that’s posed at the beginning. The killer will be caught. Justice will be served. Order will be restored.
Isaiah, and much else in the Bible, especially the prophets, puzzles us because it’s not our time, not our world, not our context. And yet it is our tradition, for now, so long as Western Civilization survives. There may come a time in the West when Isaiah is no more known than the I Ching or the Bardo Thodol. Of course, it will no longer then be “The West” as it’s been known. But virtually every literary artefact and foundational concept for now is indebted to Isaiah, to the Law, to the Sermon on the Mount, to the cross of Christ and the rich treasury of the scriptures.
On a visual level even our automobile logos point to our history. The Cadillac and Buick logos partake of the heraldry of Christian Europe. The Statue of Liberty, which speaks in the terminology of Jesus’ first sermon, proclaiming liberty, holds aloft a burning torch, which illuminates perhaps how the salvation shall go forth from Jerusalem, in Isaiah’s words.
We live in the bright light of the Bible, but as a society we’re almost totally blind as to where that bright light originates. You’re walking through the grocery store and in addition to your grocery list you pick up some beans and rice and canned soup to donate! To an organization! That gives it away! To a person you’ve never met! And you’ll likely never meet them. Why would you do that? Who are they to you? They’re poor! Are they your relatives? Do you know them? In the non-biblical world, they’d never be noticed. Literally no one would care. But you’ve been traditioned. You’ve been conditioned by words you’ve heard all your life. You know where they come from even if others don’t. Love your neighbor. Feed the poor, clothe the naked, heal the sick. Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the Kingdom of God.
The Bible talks about the poor constantly. Because they’re everywhere in that agricultural world that’s dominated by Kings and Rulers and the violence that sits on the thrones of all nations. But your book, the book we read from every Sunday, says that you can be God’s banker, simply by sharing your beans and rice at the Food Bank. Proverbs 19:17, “Whoever is generous to the poor lends to the LORD, and he will repay him for his deed.”
Apparently, according to the Bible, God pays his debts. He pays what he owes, and the poor are his children and if you help look after them, he pays you back. God forgets nothing. Except the sin crucified on the cross of Christ.
Because we live in a society, as greedy and moneygrubbing as it may be, that nonetheless sees the poor, feeds the poor like some of you will do today and tomorrow, a society, and not just our country, a society that, in essence, takes from the rich and gives to the poor,….as corrupt as the governmental programs may be, it’s still rare to witness in our world, scenes like in the parable Jesus tells about the poor man Lazarus, he has a name, which is remarkable in that day and time, Lazarus lies in the dirt at the gate to the rich man’s home, and he’s so poor and sick and helpless, the dogs lick the sores on his body while he lies there, dying.
In the pre-biblical world, the non-biblical world, the poor are hardly people, more like impediments in the way of others. We can read the history books and try to understand this, but we can’t take ourselves out of our tradition, our context, in which a person is the crown of God’s creation, made in the image of God, of the same flesh and blood as the baby Jesus born in a barn, with cowpats and horseflies and who knows what all.
No sanitary facilities for Mary, in that cowbarn, bleeding after giving birth, breasts aching and leaking, the child goes to his mother for sustenance. That’s the world Jesus is born into. That’s the world Jesus changes, by, well, how does he change it?
For Zion’s sake I will not keep silent. Jesus lifts up his voice in the synagogue in Capernaum as he reads from Isaiah 61: “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim liberty for the captives
and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free,
19 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”[f]
20 Then he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant and sat down. The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on him. 21 He began by saying to them, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”
“Upon your walls, Jerusalem, I have set watchmen; all the day and all the night, they shall never be silent” Isaiah says. You know, don’t you, that there’s someone reading the Word of God, somewhere in the world, 24 hours a day, as the earth spins and whirls around the sun. Certainly all day Sunday, the gospel story is told and sung and heard as the sun moves across the sky. The Word shall never be silent.
Go through the gates, Isaiah says, and Jesus entered the gates of Jerusalem, and rode that donkey, and then walked to Golgotha knowing what awaited.
How did Jesus change the world? “Behold your salvation comes; behold, his reward is with him, and his recompense before him.” “Very truly I tell you, the Son can do nothing by himself; he can do only what he sees his Father doing, because whatever the Father does the Son also does. 20 For the Father loves the Son and shows him all he does.”
In John 13, we read in John’s characteristic style, “Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end.” Jesus called and founded “a Holy people,” as Isaiah says, “the redeemed of the Lord; and you shall be called Sought out, a city not forsaken.”
Jesus founded a city with his blood. A city on a hill, that cannot be hidden. A city on the mountain of the Lord, on Mt. Zion, to which all the nations of the world shall go, saying, “Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the temple of the God of Jacob. He will teach us his ways, so that we may walk in his paths.” The law will go out from Zion, the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.”
Isaiah 62 is addressed to a people whose hopes are fading, and their energy is declining. They’ve been restored to their promised land, but they’re still in the world of finitude and the world of growing old, and losing vision, and poverty, and hunger, and anger, and dishonesty.
“We thought it would be better than this. Our parents said the Lord would restore our fortunes in Zion.”
This chapter is filled with the figures of God’s Word. The burning torch, the new name, the mouth of the Lord, the right hand of the Lord, the mighty arm of the Lord, the grain and the wine, the gates, the highway, the stones of the ground, the daughter of Zion, the city, now named Not forsaken. And more. It’s packed full of treasure, harking back to the burning torch of the Lord that passes through Abraham’s offering and all the way to the new city of God in Revelation 22.
Isaiah has nothing new to tell us, and yet everything is new. “Behold, I will create new heavens and a new earth. The former things will not be remembered, nor will they come to mind.” We are God’s love. You Hepzibah, are delightful, for the Lord delights in you. You, Beulah, are the bride of the Lord. Not forgotten, but rejoiced over.
This is your heritage. This is your vindication. This is your glory. For all the morning stars sing together and all the angels shout for joy!
December 20th, Isaiah 42:1-17
If I am sitting at my desk at this time of the year early in the morning, the sun comes in the window from the south and shines through the limbs of the leafless Maple tree and casts shadows on papers taped up on the side of the filing cabinet to my left.
On the shadows of the limbs that I see from where I sit, there often appears another shadow, a moving shadow that jumps and creeps along, which I identify as a squirrel. I don’t actually see the squirrel, just its shadow. Strangely enough this gives me pleasure and holds my attention more than a real squirrel in my backyard would, of which I have a plethora.
I can’t see the squirrel, and the squirrel can’t see me, but I watch nonetheless. The small evanescent shadow of a small creature on the cabinet in the office of a small church of an unimportant preacher.
A small thing. ““It is too small a thing that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to restore the preserved of Israel; I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.”
The scriptures speak of small things but often with a loud voice. One could argue that the Bible is just full of small things. By smallness I mean that which is often nowadays thought of as insignificant, forgotten, unimportant. Words like truth and justice feel on initial glance like large words, powerful ideas, but a look at the events of the past year seem to bely that notion.
Jack Nicholson’s immortal words, “You can’t handle the truth,” seem appropriate to our times. Alexander Solzhenitsyn gave us our reminder in his essay, “Live Not by Lies.” It was 46 years ago, the day before he was arrested by the KGB and exiled from the USSR, that his essay was written. That phrase has been borrowed now by Rod Dreher in his new book, “Live Not by Lies: A Manual for Christian Dissidents.”
Truth is often forgotten in our society. Justice is ignored. The way the coronavirus story, the death of George Floyd, the ensuing marches, riots and burning of cities, were reported, the way the presidential campaign was covered by the major media, if you need convincing that Truth is forgotten and Justice ignored in our world you need not look far. But of course, lies that are large enough and loud enough will often be believed, by some at least.
It’s a confusing time. I’m often confused, as well. We often don’t know who to believe. A dog that is repeatedly beaten will cower away from the kindest hand. What happens when lies dominates one’s life? What happens to those whose entire life is a life of being lied to? Who do you trust?
Isaiah 42:6 says, ““I am the Lord, I have called you in righteousness, I have taken you by the hand and kept you; I have given you as a covenant to the people, a light to the nations, to open the eyes that are blind.”
Isaiah teaches us to look in the lonely, ignored, unimportant corners of the world, if we would truly see, and see truly. In the Roman world of 2,000 years ago, what more forgotten place than a village in Judah? What more ignored hope than the unlikely hope of Jews for justice and righteousness in their world, dominated by a Roman client, King Herod, whose hands must have ached from holding on to power so tightly that he would liquidate a generation of boys from that small, unimportant village? Like Herod’s spiritual descendant Pontius Pilate, what did he care about justice or truth?
Small things. But small things can be powerful. How large is a virus? How large is an atom of plutonium?
We sometimes hear of the figures and events from the past, and as if looking at an object far, far away, or through a reverse telescope, they all appear small. For after all, what can be as important as me, myself and I, the center of the emotional universe? We all have a chronological snobbery. What is now is of most importance.
Space and distance minimize our visual capabilities. And they remind us as well, of what time can do to your perceptions of the relative importance of what we remember, or don’t remember.
Part of the world’s problem is that it doesn’t know, what it doesn’t know. Truly a human condition. We all need a good word. A helpful, a hopeful word. Some perhaps remember Donald Rumsfeld, who, in the context of a press briefing in 2002, said, “Reports that say that something hasn't happened are always interesting to me, because as we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns—the ones we don't know we don't know.”
If one doesn’t know that Truth is often kicked to the curb, if one doesn’t operate with a sense that there is an overarching truth that can be trusted, that can be loved, even, one is likely not to know or certainly not to understand that there was a man who claimed to actually be truth, “the way, the truth, and the life.”
The way to the desire of all the ages, the truth at the foundation of the real world, and the life without which there is no hope for the future.
Jesus Christ, the servant of the Lord, is the unknown unknown for many, for just as our eyes flit over the correct object of our search when we are actually searching for the wrong thing, and isn’t that another good description of the human condition, “searching for the wrong thing;” the Truth may be alive and well, but unknown to most, for many consider this truth a legend, a discredited figure, a myth, a tool of the wicked to fool the credulous, an old fairy tale, a nursery rhyme for adults, a means to sell one’s goods in December.
Alaric was King of the Visigoths, and sacked Rome in 410 AD. He bestrode the world for awhile like a colossus, until a fever, perhaps caused by a virus, brought him down from his high perch. Alaric is buried, along with his plundered wealth, under a riverbed somewhere in the southern Italian town of Cosenza. Gone and forgotten, by most. It was a long time ago.
The Holy Roman Emperor Frederick Barbarossa, the First, dominated the 12th century with his longevity, organizational skills, battlefield acumen and political acuity. While leading the Third Crusade, Barbarossa, Red Beard in English, crossed a river in Southern Turkey on horseback and when the horse stumbled, he fell off and the weight of his suit of armor drowned him in the river.
His bones, his flesh, and his heart were buried in three different locations in Antioch, Tyre and Tarsus. The course of history shifted drastically with the actions and deaths of both of these two men, and of course that of many others. Julius Caesar, Genghis Khan, Napoleon Bonaparte.
But in our world today I would wager that more people know Hunter Biden’s name than King Alaric. More people certainly worship Taylor Swift than ever shed a tear for old Frederick Barbarossa.
But, to those alive in that day, these were world-shaking men and moments. Some mourned and some rejoiced. Naturally, all kind of events loom large in our own lives, varying by individual circumstance. Sometimes the pace of change is hard to keep up with. Of course, the death of a parent or spouse assumes much more importance to the person who survives than any number of news stories and scandals that pre-occupy the rest of us and the producers of News Shows.
I’m told the phrase “This too, shall pass” is of Persian origin, but it sounds a lot like the writer of the book of Ecclesiastes. It’s hard to believe now, but this virus will fade in our memories in the face of new events, new crises. Schoolchildren will struggle to remember the names of Fauci and Birx, fail their American history quizzes. “That was a long time ago,” they will think.
For most it will be remembered as a small thing. How well do you remember ABSCAM? Remember the Keating Five? Remember Robert McFarlane? John Poindexter? How about Herbert Kalmbach? Maurice Stans? John Ehrlichman, or HR Haldeman? Now it’s coming back. Scandals of the seventies and eighties. Many of those names went to prison.
Isaiah is now a small thing to most of the world. Isaiah? Is that the basketball player? It’s like one of those “Man in the Street” ambush interviews on camera. Can you name the Vice-President? Can you name the Chief Justice? Can you name the Governor? Most of the ones you see are hilariously inept at answering, I assume, I hope, because all the accurate answers are left out. I hope.
What does the name Isaiah make you think of? Would most people nowadays say, “The Bible?” Or basketball? Isaiah Thomas, Isaiah Joe, Isaiah Roby. Popular name these days.
A small thing. It’s not the big things that change the world. What is the cause of the 90 million casualties of WWI and WWII? Was it not a small thing? One man killed another man, with a very small pistol.
“I am the Lord, I have called you in righteousness, I have taken you by the hand and kept you; I have given you as a covenant to the people, a light to the nations, to open the eyes that are blind, to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon, from the prison those who sit in darkness.
The Lord declares his servant in Isaiah 42, as he was declared at the Baptism of Jesus by John the Baptist. “In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And when he came up out of the water, immediately he saw the heavens torn open and the Spirit descending upon him like a dove; and a voice came from heaven, “Thou art my beloved Son, with thee I am well pleased.”
The Servant, in verse 1 of our lesson: “Behold my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights; I have put my Spirit upon him, he will bring forth justice to the nations.”
The commentators pore over this text and others like it: Who is the servant? Isaiah, Eliakim? David? Israel as a whole? He’s all of those, and more. The Word of the Lord accomplishes its purpose at the time and in the manner of his providence, his guidance.
Isaiah tells us of the difficulties for all involved in this accomplishment. “For a long time, I have held my peace, I have kept still and restrained myself; now I will cry out like a woman in labor, I will gasp and pant. I will lay waste mountains and hills, and dry up all their herbage; I will turn the rivers into islands, and dry up the pools.”
A good reminder that the Lord works in the real world. The small child drives the salvation of the great world. But his mother struggles, she gasps and pants, and cries out. Jesus is born in blood, like all children. Other children also die for the salvation of the world, for had Jesus not been born, Herod would not have slaughtered the infants. Someone else paid a price for us, though they were not asked. Would you pay that price, for someone far away, and 2,000 years from now?
Some small things seem not so small. Those children were not forgotten by their parents. What did those mothers think when they later heard of the son of David, King of the Jews, native of Bethlehem, crucified by the Romans? Did they remember? Did it all come back to them?
What more hopeful word could there be than verse 16? “And I will lead the blind in a way that they know not, in paths that they have not known I will guide them. I will turn the darkness before them into light, the rough places into level ground. These are the things I will do, and I will not forsake them.”
Do you know, do you remember what it feels like to be lost? There is a hidden promise in being lost, for to be lost is defined as “to be unable to find one’s way.” That which one cannot find by oneself, is nevertheless present, by virtue of its absence. Otherwise the absence is not remarked upon. To lose one’s way is at least to have had a way, a direction. To think of a human person as having a direction, a purpose, a goal, is to have a view of the human that is more than commentator’s just a sparrow that falls in the dust. To have lost a way is to know, at the heart’s deepest core, that it may, be found again. Because once it was not lost.
Edmund Spenser wrote:
What though the sea with waves continuall
Doe eate the earth? it is no more at all:
Ne is the earth the lesse, or loseth ought:
For whatsoever from one place doth fall
Is with the tide unto another brought:
For there is nothing lost, that may not be found, if sought.
Though it couldn’t be said that to be lost is to be found, certainly one may not be found if one is not lost. And to know that one is lost, to experience “lostness” prepares one to be found, readies the heart for the discovery of one’s soul by another, by the one who has never lost one of his little ones.
“These are the things I will do, and I will not forsake them.”
December 13, 2020 Zechariah 14:1-11
We cannot seize hold of time. We cannot restrain it or constrain it in any way. Can’t make it slow down or speed it up. This is part of our fundamental humanness, our finitude. We are finite, in relation to the in-finite, or infinite. It’s not the same as sinful, not necessarily a weakness or failing. It’s just who we are.
Time is the experience of change. Time is also an indication of blessing. Being in goodness is to be alive; which is to be blessed. Were there no being, no “things” to change, the movement of the stars without us, and the cells and chemicals within us, there would be no time, because no change.
In the created world, there is space, which can be thought of as the distance between things, there is matter, that of which things are made, and there is time, because all things change, either growing or decaying. There is also the mystery of energy, heat and light, which has been winding down since God first spoke light into existence.
So, in the world there is always time, because there is always change. Therefore, the absence of time, of which there is none, would simply be absence, or nothingness itself. When God spoke, Let there be light, time began as the photons moved through the universe and measurement became possible.
We are riding the wave of time as we await another Christmas, another day on which to mark the birth of our savior, to whom Zechariah points, the birth of him who is Lord not only of life and death, but of time as well, for “in him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible…all things were created through him and for him.” Colossians 1:16
The word of the Lord in Zechariah 14 is about time and its approach and what it brings. “A day of the Lord is coming.” Vs. 1 tells us. “On that day his feet shall stand on the Mount of Olives.” “Then the Lord your God will come and all his holy ones with him.” “On that day there shall be neither cold nor frost.” “On that day living water shall flow out from Jerusalem.”
This passage, spoken to us in our time past, though we’re hearing it in our own present, was spoken by Zechariah in his own present, about his and our future. Zechariah is an apocalyptic prophet. His words are performative through time. Jesus brings, in Zechariah’s unusual usage, ‘A’ Day of the Lord. Jesus stands on the Mount of Olives, before he hangs from the tree of the cross, the recipient of the full wrath of God, becoming sin for our sakes. For the prophets originally saw the Day of the Lord as a day of deliverance over their enemies, and later, with the words of Amos, as a day of God’s wrath on the sins of his people. Jesus brings these two views of the Day of the Lord together.
Zechariah’s words in verse 5 point to the one who sat on the Mt. of Olives, who stood on the Mt. of Olives, who went to the Mt. of Olives after the Last Supper, to pray in Gethsemane, at the foot of the Mt. of Olives.
This is the one who stood and will stand on the Mt. of Olives, who promised in John 7 “He who believes in me, as the scripture has said, ‘Out of his heart shall flow rivers of living water.’” The river of living water from Zechariah 14:8, is the water of life that Jesus offers, as also the River of the water of Life that flows from the throne of God and of the Lamb in Revelation 22.
Ezekiel said in ch. 47, “Then he led me back along the bank of the river. 7 As I went back, I saw upon the bank of the river very many trees on the one side and on the other. 8 And he said to me, “This water flows toward the eastern region and goes down into the Arabah; and when it enters the stagnant waters of the sea, the water will become fresh… 12 And on the banks, on both sides of the river, there will grow all kinds of trees for food. Their leaves will not wither nor their fruit fail, but they will bear fresh fruit every month, because the water for them flows from the sanctuary. Their fruit will be for food, and their leaves for healing.”
At the center of the picture Zechariah gives us is the kingdom of God, spoken of as Jerusalem, on its mountain, and the Lord. This is the general theme of the major and minor prophets, whose focus is the promises of the Lord to his people and through them to the world, and the approach of these promises in time.
A day is coming. The Lord is coming. On that day. This repeated theme is the reason Zechariah is read at Advent, though not in the Common Lectionary, which uses only one passage from Zechariah during the whole three-year cycle, the word in ch. 9 read for Palm Sunday in Year A of the cycle: Lo, your king comes to you; triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on an ass, on a colt the foal of an ass.
But like most OT prophets, Zechariah and his visions makes listeners a little uneasy. We don’t know what to do with them. We don’t know how to assert the truth of Zechariah in a culture of objectivity. Most religious discourse today is shunted aside as lacking in objectivity. Not scientific. No proof. Just somebody’s opinion.
Scientific assertions, on the other hand, are said to be objective, true regardless of who the “subject” may be, perceiving or measuring the object. The point of a scientific truth for a given object or phenomenon is to be the same for every perceiver, every observer, every subject. Thus it is said to be objectively true. The truth is said to inhere in the object. Thus the scientific method is intended to give us a truth independent of whoever observes the object or phenomenon. This is the general goal of the experimental method, so-called.
Today, we’ve so thoroughly forgotten how to read the scriptures, because no one has taught us, we’ve mostly abandoned them. When there’s some disagreement on a relevant biblical text or topic, we say “That’s just your interpretation,” as if there were no reality to which the scripture links or connects beyond the individual opinion of each and every person. “That’s how you read it, but not how I read it.” QED. Argument over. We claim a personal, not necessarily communicable individual truth that need not be the truth of any other for it nonetheless to be a truth. “This is true for me,” we’ve claimed or heard claimed, endlessly.
When we move into that mode of claim and counter-claim, anything less than science, so-called, seems to fall short of real, objective truth. When we’re repeatedly told, by non-scientists, to “listen to the science,” on whatever topic, you can be sure you’ve left science behind and migrated to a culture of authority, not experiment.
Though we can’t hear this easily, perhaps we don’t have ears to hear, objective truth is not the only generalizable truth. The Danish writer Kierkegaard said in a phrase that has puzzled readers for decades, that “Truth is subjectivity.”
A dense claim on its surface, but in actuality he simply means that a truth’s significance lies in a subject’s engagement with it. Does it matter? This kind of truth does not lack objectivity, for if it did it would be merely a collection of impressions, and not a question of truth at all.
That with which humanity engages most deeply and strongly, most constantly, can be said to be the truth to which the subject, the observer, the learner, is most connected. We all know the boiling point of water can be determined, depending on the altitude. Is that more or less true than life is a gift of God for which each of us is responsible?
This is not an argument for Sheilaism, which I mentioned last week, where Sheila has her own little church of one. Truth is multi-faceted, and can be simple and complex. The problem with the modern methods reducing our reading and hearing of the scriptures to what can be demonstrated to be actually, factually, video-camera level true, is to once again focus on that which has a lower level of truth, than the words, “the Lord is coming.”
Now, I know, we all have the rebuttal of this kind of talk in the back of our minds. I do as well. We are programmed by our education and culture to doubt. This is how the modern world got its start, with Descartes, the French thinker of the 17th century.
He considered nothing was knowable, except that fact, that he doubted everything. Dubito, ergo sum. I doubt, therefore I am. The rest of the road for the next four centuries was everything has to be proven, demonstrable, replicable.
The church’s centuries old traditional way of reading scripture was gradually left behind and generally invalidated in the eyes of the academy, as the historical-critical method so-called essentially canonized the present as over against the past. The problem with this is that there is no accessible present. In a sense the present doesn’t exist. The moment you think about the present, it’s already past, and you’ve moved into the future, though it keeps receding, as the moving present chases it. We live in the past, the period of Zechariah and Jesus, and though the past of last week, last year, last century takes effort and intentional deciphering, so does the ever-shifting present.
Think of the difficulties of two people understanding one another. Even when they speak the same language, are the same age, live in the same country, confusion reigns. Explain your political views to someone of the opposite persuasion. How well do you think that would go? Explain why you prefer to read biographies to histories. Explain why you’d rather watch Netflix than the NFL. Nothing is simple, and effort must be expended to arrive at a modicum of perception.
When you listen to someone with the goal of understanding them, there are all kinds of steps we take that we aren’t even aware of, for they’re just habit. Patience, acuity, sympathy, perception, many other things help in the process.
Reading the Bible requires desire and practice along with much else, especially a humble prayer to have one’s own heart opened to the Spirit of God.
The Lord is coming. Jerusalem is the mountain of the Lord. The holiness and righteousness of God, associated with his strength and protection, is what Jerusalem means. The righteousness that God bestows on and requires of us in acknowledgment of who he is, is what describes and characterizes the protection supplied by the fortress of Jerusalem. The Mountain of the Lord is the strength he gives to his people to be and remain faithful.
The living water that flows from Jerusalem is not only the song of David, but the blood of Jesus Christ, for his shed blood, accepted by the humble and contrite heart, is like the body of Elisha. After Elisha was laid in his tomb in Israel, the next year when a dead man was being buried nearby, the burial party saw that an invading party of Moabites was coming over the hill. Dropping their shovels, they bundled the dead man into the nearest tomb, above ground, and when he came into contact with the bones of Elisha, he was resuscitated.
Not the bones, but the blood of Christ flows from the throne of God and gives life to many. This is what Zechariah is pointing to. He has a specific vision, it’s in Jerusalem, it’s the Lord, who speaks in the context of righteousness, he brings his holy ones, it says in verse 5, for the Lord sanctifies all who come to him. The message of Zechariah is not just be kind and acknowledge whatever God you believe in.
Zechariah, sharing our past with us, reminds us that the Lord remembers, for this is what his name, Zechariah, means. The Lord remembers, and never forgets. The day has arrived. The day is coming. You and I live in the past and the future. And our past continues to build our foundation, and our future is always drawing us toward the Lord, for he comes, he comes to judge the earth.
Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.
December 6th, 2 John 1-13
The season of Advent developed because of the church’s sense of holiness. What does that mean? It means that in a way similar to Moses being enjoined to keep his distance when he turned aside to see the Burning Bush, the church also considered it inappropriate to simply move from everyday life right into the celebration of the Incarnation in the blink of an eye.
Now Moses was tending the flock of Jethro his father-in-law, the priest of Midian, and he led the flock to the far side of the wilderness and came to Horeb, the mountain of God. 2 There the angel of the Lord appeared to him in flames of fire from within a bush. Moses saw that though the bush was on fire it did not burn up. 3 So Moses thought, “I will go over and see this strange sight—why the bush does not burn up.” 4 When the Lord saw that he had gone over to look, God called to him from within the bush, “Moses! Moses!”
And Moses said, “Here I am.” 5 “Do not come any closer,” God said. “Take off your sandals, for the place where you are standing is holy ground.”
Do not come near. This is a holiness of space and distance. There is a holiness of use or matter present in the story as well, when Moses is told to take off his sandals. His sandals have been just everywhere and anywhere, and now he is not just anywhere but in a limited space. Holy Ground.
All the earth is the Lord’s. Everything that is, is made by him and therefore partakes of an existential goodness by virtue of being. But goodness is not the same as holiness. The vessels in the tabernacle were holy. The vessels at every Jew’s table were not. Paul speaks in a similar fashion in 2 Timothy: “In a great house there are not only vessels of gold and silver but also of wood and earthenware, and some for noble use, some for ignoble.”
In Moses’ story, holiness is a liminal state. On the borderline. Liminal comes from the Latin word meaning threshold. That which divides, which marks the difference, in the normal case, between in an out.
Moses, Moses. Do not come near. Take off your sandals, for this is Holy Ground. To move into the holy is to cross a line, when it’s the issue of holiness of place. With a holiness of use, it’s a need to give something up or take something on, some new burden or command.
When it is a holiness of time, there’s a different experience. The Holiness of time affects one’s outlook. One’s behavior reflects the case that time is being experienced, that life is being lived, differently, for a different purpose.
Many of the laws of the Torah were given to inculcate an understanding of holiness within the heart and culture of the Jewish people. Do this, not that. Eat this, not that. Work now, not then.
The Sabbath is the greatest and most common example of this holiness, the hallowing of time. “And on the seventh day God finished his work which he had done, and he rested on the seventh day from all his work which he had done. 3 So God blessed the seventh day and hallowed it, because on it God rested from all his work which he had done in creation.”
The idea of Advent is that the church hallowed Christmas with this season of preparation. Advent as a liturgical season was not common till the development of the practice of holding Baptisms on Epiphany, the holiday remembering the visit of the Magi, and this pushed the preparation period back 40 days to the middle of November. This was eventually shortened as Advent took on more of the purpose of preparation for Christmas rather than baptism on Epiphany. And December 25 was not chosen by the church to match up with some popular pagan Roman holiday, but because the relatively easy to discern date of Christ’s death was thought coincide with the date of his conception 9 months earlier, as was commonly believed about the Hebrew Patriarchs. The typical date for when Christ was thought to have died was March 25, the 14th of the Jewish month of Nisan, and 9 months later brings you to December 25.
The scripture lessons for Advent Sundays are chosen based on themes consonant with preparing for the coming of Christ at Christmas. Some of those themes are his first coming, of course, the Second Coming, the persons of John the Baptist and Jesus’ mother, Mary, the prophecies of his coming and their fulfillment and holiness.
It’s fair to say that the last-mentioned theme is not often listed or specified for Advent and one reason for that is the limited nature of the lectionary, being designed to operate in a 3-year cycle. By adding a fourth year, I opened up more Sundays for scriptures not anywhere used in the 3-year cycle.
2 John is one of those scriptures. Clifton Black, a commentator, calls 2 John a neglected step child in Biblical interpretation. Not used anywhere in any lectionary, if you only get your Bible from what’s read on Sunday mornings, you may never come across 2 John. Most folks stumble across it on their way to finding the book of Revelation.
If it weren’t for 3 John, 2 John would be the shortest book in the New Testament. It reiterates some themes found in I John, but few scriptures this short have as much to say to the church as 2 John does.
One reason to give it our attention is that 2 John’s insistence on a kind of relational holiness makes preachers and listeners extremely uncomfortable, not to mention the writers of commentaries. When I read stuff like the following, I just can’t resist seeing what’s got them so worked up.
JL Houlden, in speaking of verses 7-11, which could be considered the center of the book’s message, that, “this passage has, on any showing, an ugly look.” And on closer inspection “it is even more drastic and unfortunate.” It puzzles the heck out of me how a scholar can spend a lifetime interpreting the Bible and then conclude that he could have done a better job than John. An ugly look! Drastic and unfortunate!
Judith Lieu considers it an “enigmatic irony” that 2 John “found a way to acceptance by the wider church within its canon of scripture.” I guess Professor Lieu thinks it’s too bad she wasn’t in charge of choosing the books to go in the Bible.
One more. D. Moody Smith, born here in Murfreesboro, was a NT professor at Duke for 36 years said, “Perhaps the unique feature of this letter is best left unheeded. There is a sufficiency of bigotry and intolerance about, so that we do not need the Second Epistle to encourage it.”
What on earth are Bible scholars doing deprecating and canceling the message of a book in the Bible? Is the Bible part of the basket of deplorables now? I think what some don’t like about 2 John is that he’s drawing lines, defining what’s acceptable and what’s not in the central theme of the Gospel.
Most of us have a hard time of figuring out a way to take 2 John’s message to heart and at the same time be entirely nice and polite and civil and liberal minded. For 2 John is a violation everything our betters would inculcate in us regarding what we should believe about Jesus Christ and how the church and its members should interact with those who reject the gospel message. Live and let live is the American way, and we’re taught that every day in every way. Get along. Why argue. Freedom of religion. At the highest levels of American authority, we were told by Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy 20 years ago, “"At the heart of liberty is the right to define one's own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life."
Few of us would disagree with that and other statements like it, so when we stumble on 2 John we’re a mite bewildered. It’s clear from the prior letter, I John, that there has been a breach in the unity of their part of the church, probably around the city of Ephesus, because from John’s warnings it’s clear that some have rejected the reality of God coming to earth in the flesh as Jesus of Nazareth. As I John 2:19 says, “They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would have continued with us; but they went out, that it might be plain that they all are not of us.”
Here we are, on the Second Sunday of Advent, preparing for the coming of the Christ Child, the birth of the baby. But if it’s no God who comes at that moment, who cares? Just another baby. Babies are wonderful, every baby is wonderful, but nobody shuts down business and government and schools for my birthday, or yours. Well, actually, my birthday is July 4, so I guess they do, but you know what I mean. Why Christmas if God has not come to us? The trees, the lights, the presents, the food, the travel, the money, and it’s just another baby? If the theological opponents of 2 John are right, there’s simply no point in it all.
These Christians at the end of the 1st century are being told by the writer to shun their fellow church members who reject the notion of the birth of God in Bethlehem. To neither greet them, nor welcome them into their homes.
Pretty harsh by today’s standards. Judge not that ye be not judged, pops into the heads of most of us, even the Pope, apparently. Who am I to judge? he famously said. And many Catholics said, Well, we thought you were the Pope, but never mind.
No, when this obscure little epistle counsels a type of theological holiness, a fellowship holiness we can call it, most of us typically read it as just going too far. Like Smith and Houlden and Lieu, we want nothing to do with religious bigotry and hatred. In his book “Habits of the Heart” about religion in America, Robert Bellah quotes a Sheila Larsen, not her real name, who says, “I believe in God. I'm not a religious fanatic. I can't remember the last time I went to church. My faith has carried me a long way. It's Sheilaism. Just my own little voice ... It's just try to love yourself and be gentle with yourself. You know, I guess, take care of each other. I think He would want us to take care of each other.”
The columnist Don Kahle concluded that Sheila "has a code of ethics, but it's no longer connected to a sacred text or an observing deity. It's personal – and unpublished. Sheila abides by Sheilaism. Sheilaism is good for Sheila, but it doesn't build community. Nobody but Sheila knows what are the codes of Sheilaism. Often Sheila doesn't know herself until something 'doesn't feel right.’”
The relevant point about 2 John is that he’s focused on belief, on theology, not behavior or morals. It’s relevant because we’ve heard all our lives, and correctly, that Jesus loved the sinner, welcomed the unrighteous, as in Luke 5 and many other places: “but the Pharisees and their scribes complained to Jesus’ disciples, “Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?” Jesus answered, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners, to repentance.”…
You can see the difference. When we conflate these topics we get tripped up. There may be an unbreakable connection between theology and ethical behavior, but the New Testament seems to extend that connection with a very generous line.
It’s true, Jesus did eat and drink with sinners, a violation of how the Pharisees understood the strictures of the law. He did fraternize with the unrighteous and society’s most despised members. But he called these non-believers to repentance, he came to bring healing to the sick. The scribes and Pharisees rejected him and his message and Matthew 23 is perhaps more exclusionary than even 2 John is.
From the beginning the beginning the church did practice exclusion even when it wasn’t theological, but more of an ethical question. Ananias and Sapphira cheated the church and lied about what they had contributed financially, and God struck them dead, in Acts 5.
Paul counselled the church in Corinth to cast out the man who was sleeping with his “father’s wife,” as it says, assumed to be his stepmother. And the letter to Titus advises him “As for a person who stirs up division, after warning him once and then twice, have nothing more to do with him,”
But as Paul clarifies in I Corinthians 5, the New Testament is more stringent with Christians than non- Christians, and often more stringent doctrinally than ethically. He says, “I wrote to you in my letter not to associate with immoral men; not at all meaning the immoral of this world, or the greedy and robbers, or idolaters, since then you would need to go out of the world. But rather I wrote to you not to associate with any one who bears the name of brother if he is guilty of immorality or greed, or is an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or robber—not even to eat with such a one. For what have I to do with judging outsiders? Is it not those inside the church whom you are to judge? God judges those outside.”
The broader picture helps us understand the context, but the notion that one nonchalantly reject the doctrine of Christ, the message that God, in his fullness of Glory was born of a woman and crucified on a cross and still receive the welcome and greeting of the church as if we all may pick and choose what we believe about Jesus “cafeteria style” in certainly rejected here in 2 John.
Why am I telling you this? Am I suggesting we need some heresy trials? A Theological Inquisition into the faith of everyone in the church? Am I calling for a culling, a weeding out of the church of those who don’t measure up to what 2 John calls, “the doctrine of Christ?”
Look around you. If that’s my plan, we’re running low on people to investigate. Now more than ever, it’s clear that it’s the Holy Spirit that brings you to church to worship God with others, even when the media and the government are trying to scare you out of it.
No, what I want to call your attention to is the conjunction of the Season of Advent and Christmas with the Holiness of the message. The church attempts to hallow the time of the birth of Christ with this holy season of preparation, as well as by the reading and hearing of this Second letter of John, with its stringent guidelines given to its first readers who were in a theological and ecclesiological crisis. My goal is for us to be strengthened in our faith in the midst of an unwelcoming and unbelieving world.
The coming of God in the birth of Jesus Christ was to redeem God’s wayward creation, you and me, but not to delete the reality of righteousness and justice in the world. We live in a time when right and wrong are often rejected when they don’t fit the interests of the sinner, and Christ died harshly and in great suffering on a cross, not because everything’s OK and, as Sheila would say, I need to love myself, and be gentle with myself, not because we all go to heaven no matter how much hell we cause on earth, but because the holiness of God is a gift that extends to each of us just as, in the name of God born as a baby, Jesus Christ, you extend a gift to a loved one around the Christmas tree.
It’s what is done with that gift that makes the difference for each of us. And they called his name Emmanuel. God. With. Us.
November 29th, Micah 4:1-7
No man is an island,
Entire of itself;
Every man is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main.
John Donne’s wonderful poem is inspiring and beautiful and rightly revered in English literature, but it is somewhat misleading in what we are told about the island. For there is a sense, is there not, in which even the island is not an island, but merely a mountain surrounded by water, rather than surrounded by the valleys of dry land.
The roots of the island, reach down to the same roots as the mountain, all of them connected to the crust, the mantle of the earth. So Donne’s initial point about the connectedness of every person is perhaps even more strongly affirmed.
This all came to my mind in reading Micah 4 and reflecting on the fact that we too often treat biblical passages like islands. We too often think of them as unconnected to one another, perhaps through the inherently uncontexual practice of only hearing scripture read in worship, in bits and pieces, which perforce disconnects it from its roots in the whole Word of God.
For Micah 4 is a passage that is a joined to the rest of the Word of God by its metaphors as any thread in a tapestry is connected to the whole. And in like fashion, the tapestry cannot be seen by examining only the individual threads, but by standing back so one can see the whole picture that the Tapestry presents.
The relatively modern science of ecology is a good analogy, for it helps us to see the health of the forest in the health of the bird population in the health of the insect population in the health of the soil. Likewise, we’ve learned that the absence of apex predators like wolves causes problems all the way down.
In similar fashion, the Salt Cedar tree, or Tamarisk, native to central Asia was brought here 150 years ago, but is now seen as invasive and destructive because it monopolizes the soil, water and sunlight along streams and riverbanks all through the West and Southwest US. Ecology illuminates the connections.
Analogies fail when they’re pushed too hard, but when Jesus said, “Having eyes do you not see, and having ears do you not hear? And do you not remember?” we can certainly connect that to our inability to see, not the forest for the trees, but the Tree for the forest, or the mountain for the hills.
And here in Micah 4 we have the mountain and the tree: “It shall come to pass in the latter days that the mountain of the house of the Lord
shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and shall be raised up above the hills; and peoples shall flow to it, and many nations shall come, and say: “Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob; that he may teach us his ways and we may walk in his paths.”
And in verse 4 the tree raises its hand from the back of the room, not to be forgotten or ignored, like an ancient Bristlecone Pine tree clinging to the edge of the cliff of the mountain. In Micah we hear of the fig tree, almost as prominent in the Bible as the Olive tree, each providing nutrition. “but they shall sit every man under his vine and under his fig tree, and none shall make them afraid; for the mouth of the Lord of hosts has spoken.”
To sit under one’s own vine, and under one’s own fig tree is a common trope in the Old Testament for normal life, for peace in the valley, for children grown and healthy and the family fed, and fear of violence banished. “Every man under his own vine and fig tree.” Sit on the porch and watch the sun go down, how did your day go, a time to catch up. As someone said in the Sunday night class, sitting under one’s own fig tree is like a chicken in every pot, or a Mule and 40 acres.
Alan Jacobs at his website GospeloftheTrees.net, says, “The Bible is a story about trees. It begins with two trees in a garden: the Tree of Life, the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. The pivotal event in the book comes when a man named Jesus is hanged on a tree. And the last chapter of the last book features a remade Jerusalem: “In the midst of the street of it, and on either side of the river, was there the tree of life, which bore twelve manner of fruits, and yielded her fruit every month: and the leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations.” If you understand the trees, you understand the story.”
It’s important to perceive the multi-faceted use and purpose of metaphor when we read the Bible. Language itself is very close to a literal metaphor, not least because a high proportion of daily speech consists of the comparisons we call metaphor. It’s easy to think of all the metaphorical uses of common words for parts of the body, The head of company, the crown worn by the queen, eye of the camera, nose of the wine, the mouth of the cave, the teeth in the contract, the neck of the bottle, the heart of the army, the hand of the clock, etc etc.
Owen Barfield even asserts that when we look at the linguistic history of language, the further back we go, the more figurative, metaphorical, it becomes. From his perspective, the majority of our everyday speech is hidden, forgotten, metaphor.
In its simplest form, metaphor is the transfer of a name from its original to a secondary object or process. But the reason metaphor is powerful, is that this is normally accompanied by the transfer of feeling or attitude, especially when we’re not aware of that effect.
The kingdom of God is like a mountain. What in the ancient world more solid than a mountain? What can be safer than to be in the fortress at the top of the mountain looking down on one’s “enemies?” A mighty Fortress is our God, a bulwark never failing.”
The language of warfare in the Bible moves from “The Lord is a mighty man of war,” in Exodus 15 to Ephesians 6, “ Put on the full armor of God, so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes. For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.”
You know the rest, how we’re admonished to put on the “armor” of God, belt of truth, the breastplate of righteousness, the shield of faith, the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit. Paul is not admonishing us to carry real swords or shields here. And it’s so taken for granted now that we need not explain it.
In Micah we hear the prophet’s word of promise that God’s righteousness is not just about getting saved and “going to heaven.” The mountain of the house of the Lord, in the latter days, which is the eschaton, the new creation, shall be established as the highest of the mountains. Peoples shall flow to this mountain, many nations shall come and say “let us go up to the mountain of the house of Jacob, that he may teach us his ways, and we may walk in his paths.”
It’s not any mountain, and it’s not any house. It’s that of the God of Jacob. We know his ways and his paths. Righteousness is the way of God and obedience is his path. This is seen where the ark of Noah comes to rest on the mountain. This is seen on the mountain where Abraham takes Isaac to be sacrificed. God calls Moses from the burning bush at the mountain of God, Mt. Horeb, to which he returns with the children of Israel to receive the law, now called Mt. Sinai.
Balaam blesses the Israelites from Mt. Pisgah, and Moses views the promised land from Mt. Nebo. Joshua rereads the law and the covenant to the people at Mt. Ebal. David establishes the city of Judah in the old city of Salem, built around Mt. Zion, now Jerusalem. Elijah wins a victory for the Lord on Mt. Carmel, and flees to Mt Horeb, where he hears the Lord, not in the thunder, or the wind or the earthquake, but in the still, small voice on the mountain of God.
And the mountain of God reappears in many of the prophets as the destination of all the nations, that they may be taught his ways, and learn to walk in his paths.
We continue to find mountains in the NT, centrally when Jesus gives the sermon on the Mount, where he famously repeats, “you have heard that it was said, but I say unto you,” deliberately contrasting his own teaching with that of Moses. And in the three synoptic gospels, Jesus takes Peter, James and John up on the mountain to pray, where he is “transfigured” as it says, in the presence of Moses and Elijah, two familiar mountaintop figures.
But of course, the final important mountain is Mt. Calvary. I had never wondered why we call it Calvary, when all the gospels talk about Jesus being crucified on Golgotha, the “place of the skull, as Matthew and Mark and John say. The Greek word for skull used there is related to the cranium, kranion or kraniou in Greek, and naturally, translated into Latin this becomes Calvarios, from which we get Calvary, so confusing to me as a child, trying to remember the difference between Calvary and Cavalry. Hard to remember and hard to say when you’re eight years old.
As Alan Jacobs reminds us the Tree is at the beginning, middle and end of the Bible, and not fortuitously. But as in Micah, the tree carries a lot of meaning elsewhere in the scriptures, such as Psalm 1, The blessed man is like a tree planted by streams of water, that yields its fruit in its season, and its leaf does not wither, unlike the fig tree cursed by Jesus in Matthew 21.
In the prophet Joel, he speaks of the in Greek results of the failure of obedience by saying, “The vine is dried up and the fig tree is withered; the pomegranate, the palm and the apple tree— all the trees of the field—are dried up. Surely the people’s joy is withered away.”
The tall trees of Ezekiel 15, 17, and 31 are the figure for Judah and other nations, and their fall is the figure of the Exile of Judah to Babylon: “All the trees of the forest will know that I the Lord bring down the tall tree and make the low tree grow tall. I dry up the green tree and make the dry tree flourish. “‘I the Lord have spoken, and I will do it.’”
The tree structures the Bible just as the mountain does and their conjunction in Micah 4 is appropriate for the season of Advent when we remember the time of preparation for the coming of Christ. For Christ came to Jerusalem and he climbed that tree of the curse, the cross that was lifted up on the hill of Golgotha, Mt. Calvary.
The mountain figures the power and protection of the divine, it is immovable, solid, seemingly eternal. Nothing can change it or move the mountain of God. Except, perhaps the tree. The tree is the mercy of God, the blessing that falls upon the just and the unjust, like the fig and the olive and the apple. The tree yields its fruit in its season. The tree stands up and stretches out its arms, and in human fashion bears fruit in the appropriate season.
The beauty and power of the conflation of mountain and tree found in Micah 4 and on Mt. Calvary is the Lord, the Word of God, has come to earth to be one of us, no longer just the power and strength of the mountain, but the life and fruit of the tree is sent among us.
It is the man who hung upon the tree, who said “Truly I tell you, if you have faith and do not doubt, not only can you do what was done to the fig tree, but also you can say to this mountain, ‘Go, throw yourself into the sea,’ and it will be done.”
The one who hung upon the tree is showing us that the mountain may be moved. Moved with pity and compassion and mercy, the God of Moses, as spoken on Mt. Sinai, we witness the mountain of the Law which cannot save, but can only condemn, removed and thrown into the sea when the Lord says to Moses: “The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness.”
November 22nd, Deuteronomy 30:11-20
To me it is something of a puzzle. If modern literature scholars functioned in the way Biblical scholars often do, no one would ever identify the author of the Wasteland,
“April is the cruellest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.”
No one would ever identify the author of the ‘Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,”
“Let us go then, you and I,
When the evening is spread out against the sky
Like a patient etherized upon a table;
Let us go, through certain half-deserted streets,
The muttering retreats
Of restless nights in one-night cheap hotels.”
No one would ever identify the author of, “The Four Quartets,”
“Time present and time past
Are both perhaps present in time future,
And time future contained in time past.
If all time is eternally present
All time is unredeemable.
What might have been is an abstraction
Remaining a perpetual possibility
Only in a world of speculation.”
No one would believe that that writer of those 20th century icons of literary modernism inspired Andrew Lloyd Webber to write, “Memory, all alone in the moonlight…” that’s a famous song from Cats, the longest-running Broadway musical in history, until The Phantom of the Opera came along. Cats, which came from a collection of poems also written, so they say, by TS Eliot, the author of The Wasteland. Here’s the opening of his first poem in Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats. You be the judge.
“The Naming of Cats is a difficult matter, It isn't just one of your holiday games; You may think at first I'm as mad as a hatter, When I tell you, a cat must have THREE DIFFERENT NAMES.”
And of course, to get us back on track, for this is a sermon and not a musical review, there’s the same TS Eliot’s poem, “Old Deuteronomy,” from that same collection: the opening lines of which go:
“Old Deuteronomy's lived a long time;
He's a Cat who has lived many lives in succession.
He was famous in proverb and famous in rhyme,
A long while before Queen Victoria's accession.
Old Deuteronomy's buried nine wives
And more—I am tempted to say, ninety-nine;
And his numerous progeny prospers and thrives
And the village is proud of him in his decline.”
There’s more, lots more, which you can find for yourself all over the internet.
But Bible scholars notice a change in tone, a difference is timbre, a transition in quality, between Romans and I Timothy or I Corinthians and Titus, and the little wheels in their over-large brains start spinning in overtime. And they say, Paul couldn’t have written this and that. They’re too different. But two poems more different in tone and outlook and vocabulary cannot be found than The Wasteland and Old Deuteronomy.
The Bible Scholars are misled by their insistence upon the Bible being of no different material than any other texts they might come across in history, but not being real literary scholars, they don’t see things like the wild diversity between The Wasteland and Old Deuteronomy, written by the same poet.
Of course, in keeping with my method of telling you more than you think you want to know, this overexertion with regard to the historical details of the Bible and the amnesia regarding the 1,500 years of how the Bible was read and interpreted before that, began a long time before our lifetimes. Michael Legaspi opens his book, “The Death of Scripture and the Rise of Biblical Studies,” with a bang.
His first sentence is: “Scripture died a quiet death in Western Christendom in the sixteenth century. The death of scripture was attended by two ironies. First, those who brought the scriptural Bible to its death counted themselves among its defenders. Second, the power to revivify a moribund scriptural inheritance arose not from the churches but from the state. The first development was the Reformation, and the second was the rise, two hundred years later, of modern biblical scholarship.”
Now what Legaspi is doing, is trying to tell a long a complicated story of how we got from Martin Luther’s ability to preach a sermon on an uncomplicated text of Romans, “The just shall live by faith,” to an epigone preacher like myself having to wade with you backwards through the swamps and the undergrowth of 300 years of religious confusion to demonstrate my bona fides as interpreter of scripture.
Legaspi’s point is that the religious and exegetical conflict between Protestant and Catholic on the meaning of different scripture passages led to a self-inflicted double suicide, insofar as both groups destroyed their interpretive credibility with the growing class of scholars of all kinds in Europe and later in America. In the 16th and 17th centuries one could almost pick any scripture passage and receive diametrically opposed interpretations from Protestant and Catholic leaders. I exaggerate, of course, but this is certainly the truth with regard to passages about salvation, and justification and the role of the church and its leaders.
The inability of these religious authority figures contributed to the growing opacity of the scriptures to the everyday reader. You couldn’t get a straight answer to the meaning of important texts, and though it took decades to arrive, the end game in this scenario can be described with a line from Romeo and Juliet, ‘A pox on both your houses.’
It was the Germans in the late 17th century, who along with most of northern Europe, were Protestant, who drove the process of re-imagining the contents of the Bible as a type of literature similar to classical literature of the Greeks and the Romans, in order to give them a new purchase on what they thought was the proper, and hopefully, demonstrable way to settle the religious controversies with an appeal to the historical, literary, classical methods of interpreting texts as they are written in their contexts.
So they began examining the similarities of the Psalms to other poetry, like Vergil, Homer and Horace, the stories of Saul and David and Solomon to the great historical sagas of Agamemnon or Achilles, and the wisdom of Proverbs to the thoughts of Plutarch and Seneca. There seemed to these 18th century Germans to be more sustainability to reading the Bible as Literary Texts, rather than as sacred scriptures, leading to what became known, in the universities, as Biblical Studies.
To look at and read the Bible simply as an ancient text rather than a Word from the Divine creator of the world, or, even more so, a Word OF the Divine creator of the world, was the solution of the Enlightenment era state run German and British universities, for in that time the religious health and strength of a society was paramount to the success of the state and its princes and kings.
But if a text is not simply scripture, scripture meaning a sacred writing that possesses its own authority that does not rely on outside demonstration, does not require separate and unrelated authentication, if what we read is not already experienced as an oracle from the mouth of the Lord to be heard and obeyed and meditated upon as one would chew the wax of the honeycomb, then, without that prior understanding, which John Calvin understood dimly, though much better than other Reformers and Counter-Reformers, without this agreed upon status of the Holy Writ, one finds oneself in an intellectual wrestling match, a seminar room, a dissertation defense, rather than in the presence of the Spirit of the Living God.
To be fair, once the battle was a battle amongst Reformers and Counter-Reformers, the old way of reading was forgotten and left behind as having no usefulness in an arena where its efficacy was recognized by neither side. Everyone rushed and hurried down the broad avenue of contention to the dead end that awaited.
We are now, some 500 years later, finding ourselves in a place where rather than having to turn our “guns” on one another, we’ve become surrounded by the true enemy and some are learning to turn their backs on former enemies and find the true source of the attack from without. When you’re surrounded you fight back to back. But a miserable history of failure has had to lead us to this place, where we recognize one another within the churches as brothers and sisters who are called to maintain and proclaim the gospel to a hostile world.
One of the values of Deuteronomy is the way that when it’s spoken, it comes to us as the Word of God spoken through Moses. The commandment I give you is not too hard, not too far off. You need not send someone to heaven to fetch it, or across the seas to find it. The Word is very near you, it is in your mouth and your heart, so that you can do it.
The simplicity is part of the appeal. Understood spiritually, specifically as scripture, the Bible delivers to us the method of interpretation. It is in your mouth and in your heart, so that you can do it. There is a strong sense that the doing of scripture can overcome the attempts to control scripture by locking down a particular doctrinal interpretive scheme. Scripture is to be lived, not just argued about.
It seems clear to me that history has delivered to us an understanding of why the Apostles’ Creed and later even more complex creeds focused on our faith and belief in the Father Son and Holy Spirit, rather than any theory of atonement, any spelled out, laid out, straightforward plan of salvation that applies to each and every sinner. For that is what so many of the arguments were about.
It is clear that the Bible, and the NT especially, gives more than one answer to the question of how must I be saved. And they’re not contradictory answers, they’re evidence of the power of the Holy Spirit in speaking through the written scriptures to provide an answer to every searching sinner, every seeking, wandering, lost child of God who can’t discern the difference between the answers given by Lutherans, Calvinists, Franciscans, Jesuits or even God save us, the Disciples of Christ.
This is not to say we preach the Church of What’s Happenin’ Now. This is not a free for all, get your salvation candy right here, come one come all, no questions asked!
No, we clearly have the scriptures as God’s precious gift. They are written, they are stable, they are translatable. “The commandment I give you is not too hard, not too far off. You need not send someone to heaven to fetch it, or across the seas to find it. The Word is very near you, it is in your mouth and your heart, so that you can do it.”
St. Augustine from the 5th century was no stranger to controversy, as the church was still settling down on some very broad issues in their controversies with the Donatists and the Pelagians, Augustine’s main interlocutors. But he left a very useful quote, even though quotes can easily be taken out of context and abused. Once again the spirit of the interpreter must be enlivened and illuminated by the Holy Spirit of God, otherwise the best rules and guidelines in the world will fail us. For it is God’s Word, and his face that we must seek.
Augustine famously said, “Whoever, then, thinks that he understands the Holy Scriptures, or any part of them, but puts such an interpretation upon them as does not tend to build up this twofold love of God and our neighbor, does not yet understand them as he ought.”
It doesn’t work as well in reverse as an interpretive guide, for we get love tangled up in sentimentality and think that if our heart melts at a poignant TV news segment on a homeless family we are fulfilling the first and second great commandments. We are not. Actions motivated by sentimentality are for ourselves. How many times have I read the statement of some do-gooder, as my father-in-law, who was a Social Worker, called them, when they’ve said, for attribution, “When I help out the homeless,” and it’s usually on Thanksgiving or Christmas, “I feel good about myself.”
Well isn’t that special. Sentimentality uses the other as a burnishing tool for our own self-inflated opinion of ourself. If I could convince the world to simply and effectively love their family and their immediate neighbor, we wouldn’t have to feed the homeless on Thanksgiving.
But family can’t be loved at a distance. The problem with family is often not distance, but lack of distance. They talk back. They insult you. They won’t hold still for you to love them the way YOU think you should. They have their own ideas of what love is.It’s like trying to put the socks on a one year old. Hold still!
Love is complicated, and always suspect, always suspect as a public policy. When I hear people say we need more love in politics and public life, I think of the love that the Ayatollahs called for when they needed unarmed Iranian teenagers to place themselves on the front lines of the battles with the Iraqis back in the 80s. They should have had a disclaimer on the documentaries made on that little dust-up: No Ayatollahs were harmed in the making of this war.
But when used as Augustine intended, his quote is very helpful. In your understanding of the scripture, any particular scripture, does it contribute to the building up of the love of God and the love of neighbor? It’s a test of how one puts into practice what one has learned and believes about the Word of God.
Hear Moses’ words at the end of our lesson for today: “I call heaven and earth to witness against you this day, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse; therefore choose life, that you and your descendants may live, 20 loving the Lord your God, obeying his voice, and cleaving to him.”
November 15th, Luke 10:1-24
Alan Culpepper, Bible commentator, says this text about the sending of the 70, contains a concentration of sayings that are embarrassing for the church today and difficult to comprehend and/or put into practice. Carry no purse: well, I’m good with that. I very seldom carry a purse. My granddaughter, though, she might object. I took home the smallest version of all those purses Student Ministry is trying to get rid of, shortened the strap, and now Miss Betsy has to take her purse pretty much everywhere.
Travel light, I guess should be the summary here for that part. But overall, this text from Luke on the appointment of the 70 is strikingly different from church evangelism today, is it not. In this text, there are ten “sayings” of Jesus. Gospel scholars look at the structure of the gospels under categories. There’s the Passion Narrative, which essentially takes the reader from the arrest of Jesus, through the trial and crucifixion and to the Resurrection.
This passion narrative, because it’s common to all four gospels, is thought to be the earliest form of a written gospel or an oral tradition about the story of Jesus. But there are other aspects of the gospels that are easy to see. There is the narrative structure that tells the story, that gets us from start to finish, the nuts and bolts, the seams that sew things together. This gives us movement and location. Many stories make up the larger story: healing stories, exorcism stories, miracle stories of different kinds.
And there are Collections of Sayings, as we see in Matthew 13, which has a string of short parables about the kingdom of heaven. The sayings collections focus more on what Jesus said than on what he did. The Sermon on the Mount is a big collection of sayings which coheres together easily, and is therefore likely to be a spoken sermon, a single discourse. The gospel of John also has many longer discourses like that, usually moments following a healing or other event when Jesus then explains who he is and why he has come.
This text of Luke 10 gives us a combination. We have the narrative of an event, the sending out of the 70 to preach the kingdom of God, and the sayings that comprise Jesus’ instructions to them, along with their reactions upon their return, and Jesus’ continued teaching in response to their reaction.
Luke 10 is a long text and has in essence 10 sayings, which we’ll list and look at.
The first is what Jesus says about the harvest. You’ve heard this before. Winds up in hymns, sometimes. Sowing in the morning, sowing seeds of kindness, Sowing in the noontide and the dewy eve; Waiting for the harvest, and the time of reaping, We shall come Rejoicing, bringing in the sheaves.
In this instance there are too few workers for the plentiful harvest, so pray that the Lord of the Harvest will send more workers into the fields, he says. A harvest is time oriented, and apparently the harvest is plentiful, but not enough people to bring it in. It seems there are those in Galilee who need to hear the good news of the kingdom, and they need to hear it now. The harvest is time oriented: it doesn’t last forever.
Now Jesus is speaking metaphorically. We know he’s using metaphor, because harvest is often spoken of in the Bible in this way, in a way that points forward to a certain time, when the harvest must be gathered. When all is lost or won.
The prophet Jeremiah lamented in Jeremiah 8, speaking of the coming destructions by the Babylonians “The harvest is ended, the summer is over, and we are not saved.” Salvation is not coming, the kingdom of God has not arrived.
Harvests have a predictable future. You may not know in June when the corn has to be harvested, but when the time comes, you’ll know it. The Farmers Almanac says they know it. Harvests don’t go on forever. Summer comes to an end. Harvest now or the fruit and the grain rots in the field. John Keats speaks of the harvest of the bees in his poem “To Autumn.”
To swell the gourd, and plump the hazel shells
With a sweet kernel; to set budding more,
And still more, later flowers for the bees,
Until they think warm days will never cease,
For summer has o'er-brimm'd their clammy cells.
But warm days always do cease. We’ve had one of those Autumns this year. Two weeks from Thanksgiving, and many leaves still on the trees. The Iris are blooming in my front yard, and one of my roses still has buds.
But the earth abides in its path around the sun. John the Baptist used harvest metaphor when he spoke of the coming of the one greater than him in Luke 3:17: His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor, and to gather the wheat into his granary, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” After the Harvest, the chaff is burnt up.
In that sayings section in Matthew 13 Jesus says, “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a man who sowed good seed in his field; 25 but while men were sleeping, his enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and went away.” The parable known as the Wheat and the Tares. The end of the parable is verse 30: “Let both grow together until the harvest; and at harvest time I will tell the reapers, Gather the weeds first and bind them in bundles to be burned, but gather the wheat into my barn.’”
Harvests don’t last forever. In the agricultural world, you plan for an annual harvest. In the way Jesus uses the term, it can be used to describe the Great Assize, the last judgment day, when the wheat and the chaff are separated. But Harvest can also be a metaphor for a time in an individual’s life which is time limited. There are seasons in a person’s life, but there comes a time for every person when there’s a final accounting.
In several places Paul puts the confrontation of the individual with the Word of God, the gospel message, in a context of crisis, a decision, a moment of moving one direction or another. In Romans 13:11-12 he says, “Besides this you know what hour it is, how it is full time now for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we first believed; 12 the night is far gone, the day is at hand. Let us then cast off the works of darkness and put on the armor of light;” You know what hour it is. Sometimes a life is thought of with the image of a single day. The sun goes down eventually.
In Ephesians 5:14-15 he says, “Awake, O sleeper, and arise from the dead, and Christ shall give you light.”15 Look carefully then how you walk, not as unwise men but as wise, 16 making the most of the time, because the days are evil.”
And the classic text is 2 Corinthians 6:2 which has inspired many hymns and says, “At the acceptable time I have listened to you, and helped you on the day of salvation.” Behold, now is the acceptable time; behold, now is the day of salvation.”
Everything Jesus says and does is in this context of crisis and decision. A harvest approaches and only the good grain is collected into the barns. To meet Jesus in the gospels, to simply speak with him inherently, unavoidably, meant that one made a decision. One went one way or another. And it’s the same today.
This is the theme, the background of almost everything Jesus says. In the sermon on the Mount, Don’t build your house on the sand, build your house on the rock. Either/or. Don’t take the broad and easy path where the road is easy, but enter by the narrow gate, where the road is hard. The tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Be like the wise virgins and have your lamp filled with oil, ready to meet the bridegroom. The thief in the night does not come on a schedule Be ready. No one can serve two masters.
This, the harvest, is the first of the ten sayings found in this text for today. Some of you are groaning to yourselves, like Robert Graves puts it in his poem Welsh Incident: “Like groaning to oneself on Sunday morning
In Chapel, close before the second psalm.'”
Here’s why it’s always best if preachers grow up going to church as children. We’ve groaned our way through sermons. Incredibly enough I’ve had people sometimes comment on the length of my sermons, and I want to say, though I normally keep it to myself, “This is nothing. You think this is long? This is nothing.” You had to grow up listening to the sermons I heard from 1965 till I married in 1977 and moved away from home, O Blessed Relief, to know what a long sermon is.
So, I know I mentioned the Ten Sayings from this text, and the Harvest saying is only the first one, but I mentioned the Sermon on the Mount earlier, and I’m reminded of another of Jesus’ sermons, Blessed are the Merciful, for they shall receive mercy, and I’m going to have mercy on you today. I want you to find those ten sayings later, starting with “the harvest is plentiful” and ending with “many prophets and kings desired to see what you see, and did not see it.” Maybe there’s nine, maybe there’s eleven. But it’s a lot.
So I just want to list for you not the sayings, but ramifications for the church today of what we can glean from this story on our calling, our commission, our appointment as workers in the field.
The first assumption is that the world, that which is alienated from God, needs the church, needs the church’s message and mission. There is a harvest and eternal souls are at stake.
And there is more work to do than laborers to do it. It’s like back before the virus. In January 2019 there were 7.5 million job openings in the country unfilled. Employers couldn’t find enough employees.
Second, prayer is one of the commands of Jesus: Therefore, ask the Lord of the Harvest to send out more workers. Does that seem somehow unnecessary? It does to me too, at first glance. But what we fervently pray for we come to love and value and hope for and focus on. Prayer works in both directions.
Third, Jesus’ instructions are given to all the disciples. “Go on your way,” he says. Fourth, he does not pretend there’s no consequences of speaking the truth publicly. The world needs to be saved for it is dangerous and damaging to itself. The church is a flock of sheep which harms no one, going out amidst wolves. Innocence and sincerity are the description of the flock Jesus sends out. For our attachment to the truth always precedes and overrides any success that is given.
Fifth, Jesus calls for single-mindedness. Greet no one on the road. Another odd command, but intended to focus his disciples on what they are called to do. Sixth, that call is to bring peace to your hearers and announce that the kingdom of God has come. Declare the peace that God is accomplishing through Jesus Christ, and live that peace with those you meet.
Seventh, the host, not the guest, sets the context for the witness: Jesus says to eat what is set before you. The disciples don’t set the menu, they don’t impose their own cultural background on others. We are to be like James Spader in that old movie Stargate when he and his crew were given a meal by the people they’d come across whose language they did not know. James Spader was the only one who would try it at first, and then said to the surprised crew, in those immortal lines: “Tastes like chicken!”
The disciple knows the message, and clings tightly to the message as given by Jesus. Those hearing the message hear it in their world and their context.
Eighth, See I told you this wouldn’t take long: Eighth, Jesus recognizes the disciple won’t always succeed: “When they do not welcome you,” he says. He knew we would meet resistance and rejection sometime. The Good News requires a change in the way people live, and not everyone wants that.
Ninth, Jesus nonetheless recommends perseverance: Shake off their dust from your feet. Keep going. Knock on the next door. And tenth: Jesus also reminds the disciples of what has happened, and what they are to clearly leave behind with those who have rejected them: “Know this: The kingdom of God has come near.”
When the kingdom of God has come near, the mercy of God has wafted in range of those who desire it and those who don’t. Mercy must be received, and not only can’t be, but simply is, never forced. Cast not your pearls before swine, give not what is holy to dogs, Jesus says in the Sermon on the Mount.
Maintain reverence for what you are doing and saying, and make no attempt to cajole and dicker with those who want nothing to do with repentance and forgiveness. The mysteries of Godliness are just that. A mystery. God is good. You’ve seen what others have only dreamed of. Blessed are the eyes that see what you see.
November 8th, Isaiah 66:1-14
One of the difficulties as well as dangers of a “lectionary religion” is what gets left out. Lectionaries are schedules of texts from biblical books for reading in public worship on a sequence of Sabbaths, or Lord’s Days. The synagogue and the church went through a centuries long canonical process, which is when the actual books of the Bible as we now call it, were gradually settled upon. Formal lectionaries came much later.
People sometimes ask how were the books of the Bible settled upon. Which in itself is a misleading question, because rabbis in the 4th and 5th centuries BC did not know they were choosing books for something we now call the Bible. Nor did they have the sense or awareness that they were “choosing” anything.
We’re so focused nowadays on voting and choosing, that it’s hard to get our mind around the process as it actually happened, and the way that Deliverance, Exodus, Settlment, Monarchy, Exile and Restoration drove the process. It’s also hard because in that time between the Exile and the time of Christ, records that might point towards how these events took place are thin and sparse. The OT books themselves give little in the way of an overt description.
But in the community of what came to be called Jews in the period after 540 BC, religious leaders of the day came to terms with the law of Moses as written, the scrolls as preserved, the telling of the story in the history books from the time of Joshua to Zedekiah, the last king of Judah, and the oracles of the prophets from Hosea to Malachi, as well as the liturgical books such as the Psalms and the wisdom literature like Proverbs and Ecclesiastes.
In that centuries long process, it’s perhaps worth asking, why hang on to Zephaniah? Why preserve Ezra, or Nahum? Why place Isaiah at the head of the line, the order of the prophets? Why have 12 minor prophets, as opposed to 4 major prophets, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel and Daniel? And who let Lamentations squeeze in there after Jeremiah?
All of these and many more, are questions that we can only attempt to answer by looking at the content of the books, by looking to see what they actually say, and asking ourselves, Why was this text valuable to the life and faith of Jews in 5th century Judah? How does this glorify God, or strengthen the understanding of the people, or clarify the law of Moses for that day?
Those kinds of questions are not cut and dried the way, for example, our media presented the political polls to us for the last three months, and which we have learned, yet again, were wrong in many ways. There is no science of “political polling,” as should be obvious by now. And there is no science of the formation of the canon of the Bible, Old or New Testament. Only a smattering of records and a series of deductions and inferences. It is a process. It participates in and illustrates how traditions are formed, which by the nature of the very word, tradition, has to do with more than one generation, the repeated handing on of beliefs, practices, understandings and hopes.
So over a long period, the outlines of the Bible take shape, discernible to a viewer some centuries later. No votes, no ballots, no councils, no recounts, no lawsuits even. The Holy Spirit speaks and is confirmed in the life of the synagogue and the church through centuries of belief and practice.
Isaiah belongs here and is needed. Isaiah tells us the story of the New Israel, born of the ashes of Jerusalem, just as we hear in a broader sense from Isaiah 65: “For behold, I create new heavens and a new earth;
And in Isaiah 66: “For as the new heavens and the new earth
which I will make shall remain before me, says the Lord;
so shall your descendants and your name remain.”
But that is the Biblical canon. We’re also today dealing with the question of the lectionary, and the new lectionary, formulated 30 years ago, and the old lectionary, from mid-20th century, both leave too much out. Lectionaries are typically formed by committees, led by church bureaucrats sourcing guidance from Bible professors. The most recent, the Revised Common Lectionary, attempted to work with many denominations, and make the scripture lessons that are read every Sunday more representative of the whole Bible and less captive of a particular theological mindset. But they still limited themselves to a three-year cycle, which only gives you roughly 160 opportunities to include all the homiletically suggestive texts in in the 66 books of the Bible, and that’s just not enough room, not enough slots.
I work with a four-year lectionary which I created to address specifically that and other issues of the old 3-year cycle. Isaiah 66 is slighted in the Revised Lectionary and it has unique material the church needs to hear.
We are the people of God and so reading and pondering and puzzling over the scriptures even when, especially when, we may not like or understand them can lead to new insights we would not have otherwise gained. “Enter by the narrow gate”, Jesus says; “for the gate is wide and the way is easy,[a] that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. 14 For the gate is narrow and the way is hard, that leads to life, and those who find it are few.”
Isaiah 66 is not something we can just blow off through ignorance or impatience. Perhaps, as an old rabbinic tradition would have it, the harder to understand a text the more important it may be for us. Made challenging by the Holy Spirit to catch our attention.
The question of the Canon, why Isaiah is in and Jubilees is out, why Deuteronomy is in and the Testament of the Three Patriarchs is out, is much more opaque than that of the lectionary, for the creation and revision of lectionaries is a modern process, with meetings and minutes, and votes, and trial runs and revisions, etc.
But today we’re going off the reservation. Today we’ve brought into the conversation a text that our “canonizers” God Bless ‘em, held onto, but the committee members on the lectionary, for some reason did not.
You may have heard how odd this sounds when Charley read it this morning: Listen to just verse 3: “He who slaughters an ox is like him who kills a man; he who sacrifices a lamb, like him who breaks a dog’s neck;he who presents a grain offering, like him who offers swine’s blood; he who makes a memorial offering of frankincense, like him who blesses an idol.
Shouldn’t this extremely hyperbolic criticism of same old/same old be heard at least once in a while? This is why a lectionary only hearing of the Bible is dangerous to our understanding. It’s like trying to understand the Constitution by reading only the Preamble and last four Articles, and missing the first three.
The book of Isaiah is clearly an edited, traditioned book. It partakes of Biblical history writing. Isaiah 37 and 2 Kings 19 are virtually the same passage. Isaiah ch. 1, and ch. 40, and chapters 65 and 66 are very intertextual, that is there are common words and themes referenced and alluded to, for the 66 chapters are spread out across decades, at least, and somehow maintain a common theological outlook while dealing with different historical contexts, some before the Exile, some during, and some after the return from Exile, like ch. 66 today.
Just verse three is a difficult pill to swallow, especially for its first hearers. In the time of Ezra, a period of refocus on the law, a period of stocktaking, confronting all the ways their ancestors had violated the covenant of Moses and led them to the brink of annihilation as a people, they had focused on the law, focused on all their mistakes, re-strengthened and reinstated strict adherence to temple practices and kosher laws.
The beginning story of Daniel was on the importance of Kosher food laws for the Jews. Ezra and Nehemiah, Zephaniah and Haggai, focused on the re-building of Solomon’s temple, which the Babylonians had destroyed in 587 BC.
Scrupulous obedience to the law had been the hallmark of those who were rebuilding the nation of Judah. They wanted to avoid the nightmares of their ancestors’ experience. When Ezra read the law aloud to the people gathered for that purpose in Jerusalem, the whole community listened, and wept, for they knew how far they were from being obedient.
So, when we hear the hyperbole in Isaiah 66, “A figure of speech in which exaggeration is used for emphasis or effect,” knowing how much the post-exile community wanted to obey the law makes this a striking passage. And the verses that precede verse 3 help us to understand it beyond the simple hyperbolic effects: “Thus says the Lord: “Heaven is my throne and the earth is my footstool; what is the house which you would build for me, and what is the place of my rest? 2 All these things my hand has made, and so all these things are mine, says the Lord. But this is the man to whom I will look, he that is humble and contrite in spirit, and trembles at my word.”
When you hear “Thus says the Lord,” in a passage, it’s a signal, a notification of a significant passage or loaded theological text. For what comes next? The Lord asserts his omnipresence and omnipotence. The heavens are mine, the earth is mine. All things are mine that I have made. And you would make me a house? And you would placate me with sacrifices?
This is the newness we see in much of the prophetic tradition. This is why some in his day began to understand what Jesus was saying and doing. They recognized it. It seems clear from the way Isaiah proceeds in his descriptions that the one who slaughters the ox as sacrifice is not the man of a humble and contrite spirit, which phrase is another example of the intertextuality of Isaiah, for it’s also found in ch. 57, “I dwell in the high and holy place, and also with him who is of a contrite and lowly spirit, to revive the spirit of the lowly, and to revive the heart of the contrite.”
As well as Psalm 51 “The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; A broken and a contrite heart, O God, You will not despise.”
Isaiah 66 is teaching what Jeremiah teaches in Jeremiah 31, that the Lord will give us new hearts of flesh and not of stone. He teaches what the Psalmist says in Psalm 34, “The Lord is near to the brokenhearted And saves those who are crushed in spirit.”
You’ve heard this before: Blessed are the poor in spirit, Blessed are those who mourn, Blessed are the meek. You know who said that.
The character of the human soul which God seeks out and rewards is a soul that can see and perceive reality, for to know oneself, and one’s sins and failings and catastrophes self-wrought, is to be contrite. Contrite comes from the old Latin word, contritus, ground into pieces. Ever felt that way?
It is the opposite of the last phrase of verse 3 and the beginning of verse 4: “They have chosen their own ways,
and they delight in their abominations;
4 so I also will choose harsh treatment for them
and will bring on them what they dread.
For when I called, no one answered,
when I spoke, no one listened.”
Brevard Childs says, “The promise of God’s salvation is to all, but it is received by the household of faith.” Some 500 years after Isaiah the church heard the promise of Christ in these words. But this is the man to whom I will look, he that is humble and contrite in spirit.”
They had seen or heard of the broken heart and spirit of an anointed one, a suffering servant, who hung on a cross, the accursed tree of Deuteronomy 21. Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the wicked. He is like a tree planted by streams of water, yielding his fruit in its season. Not fruitless trees in late autumn, twice dead and uprooted, as the book of Jude says, but “the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, yielding its fruit each month. The leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations.”
As Isaiah reminds us:
“Rejoice with Jerusalem, and be glad for her,
all you who love her;
rejoice with her in joy,
all you who mourn over her;
11 that you may suck and be satisfied
with her consoling breasts;
that you may drink deeply with delight
from the abundance of her glory.”
12 For thus says the Lord:
“Behold, I will extend prosperity to her like a river,
and the wealth of the nations like an overflowing stream;
and you shall suck, you shall be carried upon her hip,
and dandled upon her knees.
13 As one whom his mother comforts,
so I will comfort you;
you shall be comforted in Jerusalem.
This too is the day that the Lord has made, and this is the word of the Lord. Amen.
November 1st, Galatians 3:27-4:20
For me the most striking image of this passage from Galatians today is in the first verse we hear. “As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ.” The first thing I need to say about that is an apology to the editors of the NRSV, which is the edition in our pews and on the lectern.
Some of their translation decisions have been overly ideological, especially with regard to what they considered to be the necessity of inclusive language. I’ve mentioned this before with regard to the way they mistranslate Psalm 1.
But here they are an improvement on the old RSV in the way they have translated the Greek word, “Enduo,” clothe yourselves. The RSV gave us “put on” Christ, which is not incorrect, per se, just lacking.
This word “enduo,” which gives us the English words endue and the more commonly used endow, takes on, or we could happily say, is endued, with a great deal of content and profundity when it is linked, as it is here, with Christ.
You have endued yourself with Christ. Interesting to see it linked with baptism, which one doesn’t do to oneself, but has done to one. To be baptized is to submit, in the case of immersion, to submit to be lowered under the water. When I have baptized new Christians, I often have to reassure them. Relax….lean back,…I won’t let you go, I won’t drop you.
Baptism in the letters of Paul, as in Romans 6, is sometimes described with the figure of dying, dying and being buried with Christ, and often dying is a process of letting go. Letting of the world, letting go of time, letting go of the life one has had or endured. Many have known parents, or grandparents, who only let go after some beloved family member finally arrives from out of town, and they can let go, they can finally die in peace.
Others have submitted to death after confession, perhaps of a long- concealed sin or secret. Others let go when they reach a landmark in time, an anniversary, a birthday. Not always, but sometimes we are allowed to let go of life, to submit.
Correspondingly, I also have reminded candidates for baptism that I will raise them out of the water, “hold on to my wrist,” I say, but also that they need to bend their knees and get their feet back underneath them in order to stand up again.
This has two happy reminders for us. At the last day, when the trumpets shall sound, our hope of resurrection, to rise from the dead, is in the power of God alone. He is our only hope.
But in this life, even in our new life in Christ—of which baptism is a figure, we co-operate with the Spirit of God, as he breathes new life into our soul. The following of Christ, the discipleship, the learning, the struggle, is not passive. It doesn’t just happen. That’s one reason it’s described as a “walk with Christ.” It’s not a stroller ride, like I’ve given my granddaughter Betsy recently in the neighborhood. It’s a walk, sometimes described a run, a race, a struggle, a fight.
After the Christ-centered “hymn” in Philippians 2 exalting Christ as Lord, Paul exhorts his readers, in the context of obedience, to work out their salvation: “Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; 13 for God is at work in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.”
It’s an interesting balance, that points us toward the resurrection promise. Sir Walter Raleigh saw this, in what may have been the final poem he wrote, we read:
“Even such is time, that takes in trust
Our youth, our joys, our all we have,
And pays us but with age and dust;
Who, in the dark and silent grave,
When we have wandered all our ways,
Shuts up the story of our days.
But from this earth, this grave, this dust,
My God shall raise me up, I trust.”
The time will come, fear not, when you will, you must, rely wholly on God, when you must trust him, to raise you up.
So the word itself, “enduo,” clothed yourselves, partakes of the profundities of baptism, that which is done TO one, but in which one also participates. The profundity expands and deepens when we look at the connection to Christ, to him with whom we clothe ourselves.
First, Enduo, in Greek, is the ancestor of the English word endue, as well as the word endow. One might endow a wing of a hospital with an endowment, or a church, or a library, like the old Carnegie Libraries around the country, almost 1,700 of them at one point.
Endue, in English, is a little different. Bishop Joseph Butler used the word in 1736 like this: “We know we are endued with capacities of action, or happiness and misery.” In the grammar of the Greek language as used in the NT, there is an active voice, “I endue you,” there is a passive voice, “I am endued by you,” and there is what’s called a “middle voice:” I endue myself.
This is what we find in Galatians 3:27: “you have clothed yourselves with Christ. It’s in the middle voice, demonstrating the double nature of “putting on Christ,” or, “you have clothed yourselves with Christ,” harking back to the way Baptism works.
So Paul here acknowledges that we may “clothe ourselves with Christ,” in the middle voice, neither active nor passive, but more of a curious mixture of both, for Christ is the AGENT of salvation, and we the participants, not passive subjects, of the action, but participants.
There are implications to this phrase, “clothed yourselves” just as there are to clothed yourselves “with Christ.” You’ve heard the phrase, “clothes make man;” almost a proverb. It goes way back. One relatively recent use is by Mark Twain, who shows some insight into the inherent contradiction in the phrase, for anyone who ponders the phrase a moment knows that nice clothes might make a good first impression, and that one’s own confidence might even improve based on the way one is dressed, just to say that clothes make the man is to acknowledge the inherent problem. The surface incongruity is the tip off. As Twain with his sardonic wit said, “Clothes make the man. Naked people have little or no influence in society.” Twain overstates the phrase to show its fundamental unseriousness.
Clothing can communicate status and wealth and self-regard. Clothing can change the way people treat you, which can change the way you think about yourself, and perhaps make you more effective and more self-confident.
But it remains the case that clothing is an external that must give way to the deeper truth and more effective aspect of the character of a person which is revealed in one’s actions and practices. Clothes do not make the man. Unless.
Unless one is clothed with Christ. There are several aspects to this. The aesthetic, the personal, the ethical, and the theological, let’s call it.
When one realizes one is clothed with Christ, the world can be seen, in all its features, with different eyes. Is it not a beautiful world in which there is the possibility for every person to be habited in the raiment of the Son of God? Hear the allusion to this in the Sermon on the Mount: “Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow: They do not labor or spin. Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his glory was adorned like one of these.”
Jesus makes no reference to himself here, rather this is a reverse figure, in the order of time, for Paul mentions, in passing, that we who have clothed ourselves with Christ are now offspring of Abraham, heirs of the kingdom of the Great and Only King, one in Christ, with all divisions between us removed.
The rich clothing of a king, the beauties of the most beautiful flowers, are only a hint of the beauty with which we are privileged to clothe ourselves.
The personal aspect of this clothing certainly should play a role in my own transformation. For I’m not just wearing a new suit of clothes, I’m clothed in glory, “For it is the God who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ.”
Part of the ugliness of our day is seen in identity politics. As we’ve increasingly learned, identify politics always divides and sets groups against one another, because that’s its nature, its point and its purpose. All the parts of who we are, are weaponized to divide us from one another.
But your identity is different. You are clothed with Christ. That is now who you are. You are in Him, and being in Him, you are prospectively the object of that hymn I mentioned in Philippians 2: “Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name which is above every name, 10 that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, 11 and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”
You will not only ascribe glory to Jesus Christ, but you will receive it, for this is part of the mystery of the Incarnation, that the God who became one of us calls us to, and enables us to be like him.
The ethical is clear, for now you are a representative of the Son of God, an ambassador of Christ. Good ambassadors take very seriously that they represent, and are considered to speak for, their country and their President or King or Prime Minister. The ambassador carries the message and stands for what his country stands for. He re-presents.
We, because we are in Christ, are not only called now to re-present, we are enabled to represent, to live life like Christ, and to be aware that being clothed with Christ, others take what we say and do as the official message of the one we represent. This is an ethical mandate.
Finally, the theological is another way to think of Salvation. Paul here in Galatians 3 and 4 does not focus on forgiveness of sin, he does not focus on the sacrifice of Christ on our behalf, or any other theory of atonement.
Instead, his description of salvation here is Inheritance and deliverance from the evil powers now present in the world. When he gets to 4:1, Paul says, “My point is this.” That’s helpful. The rarity of this kind of clarity from Paul should not be ignored, and we should let it help us in our understanding.
In Christ, when we have clothed ourselves in the sacramental process of Baptism, we are now, because of the power and promise of God, “New Creatures,” and being a new creature is because of the resurrection of Christ which moves forward in time into each of our lives, and general resurrection on the last day, which reaches backward in time to us in the hope of God’s promise.
Life begins as a gift. Each of us receives it from others. And new life is a gift, as Paul says, that the child inherits, because we are now heirs, adopted by the King into his family.
Remember this tomorrow morning when you get dressed, when you clothe yourself. For you are now clothed and habited in the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.
I Samuel 15:17-19, October 11, 2020
Most Americans have at least tried to read the Bible. There’s a reason scripture is often confusing. As a matter of fact, if you’re not confused at some point, it might be fair to say you’re doing it wrong. Richard White was a professor of Preaching at Lexington Seminary years ago, and used to say the first thing to acknowledge when reading the Bible to prepare a sermon was “I don’t know what this means.”
“I don’t know what happened, how it happened, why it happened, what it means that it happened, what lesson it teaches, what it might address in modern life, why it should be preached on.” White goes on to say, “If I think I know what the content and meaning, etc., of the text are, then I’m proceeding from my knowledge, and not from the text.”
To me this seems to be a healthy, faithful, if difficult and challenging, way of reading the Bible, whether one is writing a sermon or not. The underlying premise of this method is that the Bible really is God’s Word, and not mine. Meaning, his communication, his revelation.
A couple of months ago, in addition to sending out the sermon, my column, and daily devotions to people on our email list, I began sending out a selection of jokes and humor along the lines of the old Readers Digest column, “Laughter’s the Best Medicine” (which comes from Proverbs 17:22, which says, “A Joyful heart is good medicine…” ). I like jokes and wish I was better at telling them. There’s a knack. Telling jokes makes people laugh. If you make people laugh, they’re disarmed for the moment. We like people who make us laugh. I like to be liked. Who doesn’t?
Preaching a sermon is different. A little humor’s OK, but it’s not the point of the sermon. With a sermon, I have a mandate from outside myself. It’s like being a banker or stockbroker and taking someone’s money and having a mandate to protect it from loss and make it grow at the same time. A fiduciary relationship.
The Bible is God’s Word, and the church’s book. It is an inheritance, a legacy, and a deposit of faith. We must hear it, we must read it, we must proclaim it. But we may not, we cannot, control it. Those who attempt that wind up shipwrecked, like Saul, in our lesson today. It may take a while, but God’s timing is not our timing. TO God a day is like a 1000 years, and a 1000 years like one day.
When we interact with God’s Word, we interact with God himself. This is one of the insights we get from the Doctrine of the Trinity. All through the Old Testament, we hear about the Hand of the Lord, the Arm of the Lord, the Word of God. These are instantiations of God himself, though at the same time other than God. They reflect the mystery of Trinity we’re accustomed to hearing about in the sometimes confusing “one is three and three is one formulation.” Which can often feel like a set of Russian dolls one inside the other.
Jesus Christ is the Word of God. His life and work and words, communicate to us who God is and what he wills, in a variety of ways. And he does not just bring religious knowledge. To truly hear the Word of God is to be changed. God speaks and worlds come into being. And even, perhaps especially, when Jesus Christ is silent, dead on the cross, God is shouting to the world, this is who I am!
Jesus Christ is the Word of God as is the word of Samuel to Saul the Word of God, and the word of Nathan to David, and Isaiah to Hezekiah and Moses to Pharaoh, and not only is Samuels’ word to Saul the Word of God, so is this story, this narration embedded in the Annals of Israel, telling us about Samuel’s word to Saul, and what happened, what was supposed to happen, and what did not happen.
Saul is the first King of Israel. The people had been governed since Joshua’s day by charismatic Judges, people like Samuel, the last of the Judges, leaders who would listen to God, who guided the people in godly life that the Lord might protect them from their enemies. As Samuel grew old, his sons Joel and Abijah were appointed to be his successors, but they were corrupt and dishonest. Ch. 8 tells us the story of the rejection of Samuel’s sons, and the people’s desire for a King, as 8:20 says, “But the people refused to obey the voice of Samuel. And they said, “No! But there shall be a king over us, 20 that we also may be like all the nations, and that our king may judge us and go out before us and fight our battles.””
And so. Samuel prays to the Lord who tells him to anoint a king, and who to anoint, and he tells Samuel that they’re not rejecting Samuel but God, and God tells Samuel to warn them of what a King will be like. And here is a good example of how the Word of God eludes our control and manipulation. The Bible has a variety of good things to say about Kings, about David and Solomon and Josiah and others, their wisdom and success, and Christian Kings since the time of Constantine all the way to George III of England paid a great deal of attention to those passages.
But sometimes the Word of the Lord to the King, or the ruler, or the government, should be Samuel’s words from ch. 8.
So Samuel told all the words of the Lord to the people who were asking for a king from him. 11 He said, “These will be the ways of the king who will reign over you: he will take your sons and appoint them to his chariots and to be his horsemen and to run before his chariots. 12 And he will appoint for himself commanders of thousands and commanders of fifties, and some to plow his ground and to reap his harvest, and to make his implements of war and the equipment of his chariots. 13 He will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers. 14 He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive orchards and give them to his servants. 15 He will take the tenth of your grain and of your vineyards and give it to his officers and to his servants. 16 He will take your male servants and female servants and the best of your young men and your donkeys, and put them to his work. 17 He will take the tenth of your flocks, and you shall be his slaves. 18 And in that day you will cry out because of your king, whom you have chosen for yourselves, but the Lord will not answer you in that day.”
Over a thousand years of western European history can be described as the working out of the relationship between the King and God’s law. One of the ways in which a careful, inspired reception of God’s Word has changed the world is seen in a book by Samuel Rutherford, Lex Rex, “The Law is King,” published in 1644 in the midst of the English Civil War between King Charles and the Puritan Parliamentarians. Charles stood for the Divine Right of Kings, much favored by his father King James, that essentially placed all political power in the King’s hands in spite of anything parliament might say.
Rutherford asserted that the Word of God placed law – Lex, over King,-- Rex. He asserted the Divine Principle that no ruler or other elected official, is or can be Above the Law, for the law is from God, Divine Law, Natural Law. And if positive law, legislative enactments by parliament or Congress, conflict with Divine or Natural Law, they must be corrected in light of that higher law.
Twenty years after the publication of Lex Rex, Cromwell’s rule was ended, Charles’ son, Charles II, was crowned as King, and Samuel Rutherford was summoned to appear before parliament for High Treason, his book already having been burned in public in Edinburgh and St. Andrews by the Public Hangman.
By this late date, Rutherford was already on his deathbed, and he sent this reply: "I have got a summons already before a superior judge and judicatory, and I am behooved to answer my first summons, and ere your day come I will be where few kings and great folks come."
There was still a long way to go before 1776 and 1787, but the ideas in the Founder’s accusations of King George for violating English Law, flow directly from the writings of Samuel Rutherford and others like him, including the prophet Samuel for whom Rutherford was named.
For us today, there could be some very helpful things to highlight for political purposes, but I’m going to make that the topic of an upcoming Sunday night class when we finish The New Testament In Its world.. I think for now it would be more helpful to focus on Samuel’s words which echo through the scriptures. For we’ll see another way in which God’s Word, living and active corrects our misuses and misunderstandings.
An overeager literalist might try to nail this down, but in the face of the Word of God himself, Jesus Christ, he would have to defer to the greater maker. Leviticus 1 jumps right in on the laws of sacrifice and offerings. From verse 3-4, and verse 10.
“If his offering is a burnt offering from the herd, he shall offer a male without blemish. He shall bring it to the entrance of the tent of meeting, that he may be accepted before the Lord. 4 He shall lay his hand on the head of the burnt offering, and it shall be accepted for him to make atonement for him.
10 “If his gift for a burnt offering is from the flock, from the sheep or goats, he shall bring a male without blemish,”
But Samuel says: “Has the Lord as great delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices, as in obedience to the voice of the Lord? Surely, to obey is better than sacrifice, and to heed better than the fat of rams. For rebellion is no less a sin than divination, and stubbornness is like iniquity and idolatry.”
Now, is Samuel contradicting Moses? Is the Bible against itself? God forbid! Those who would lay their hands on sacred things for wicked purpose should remember the results for the Philistines in I Samuel ch. 5, who stole the Ark of the Covenant, until they all began to sicken and die. It did not end well for them.
We hear reverberations of Samuel’s redefinition of sacrifice all through the Bible. In Jeremiah 7 we read: Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: Add your burnt offerings to your sacrifices, and eat the flesh yourselves. 22 For in the day that I brought your ancestors out of the land of Egypt, I did not speak to them or command them concerning burnt offerings and sacrifices. 23 But this command I gave them, “Obey my voice, and I will be your God, and you shall be my people; and walk only in the way that I command you, so that it may be well with you.”
Hosea the prophet says: What shall I do with you, O Ephraim? What shall I do with you, O Judah? Your love is like a morning cloud, like the dew that goes away early. For I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice, the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings.
We come to the gospel of Matthew and find this in ch. 9: And as he sat at dinner in the house, many tax collectors and sinners came and were sitting with him and his disciples. 11 When the Pharisees saw this, they said to his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?” 12 But when he heard this, he said, “Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ For I have come to call not the righteous but sinners.”
When Jesus responded to the scribes question about the greatest commandment, the scribe said: “You are right, Teacher; you have truly said that ‘he is one, and besides him there is no other’; 33 and ‘to love him with all the heart, and with all the understanding, and with all the strength,’ and ‘to love one’s neighbor as oneself,’—this is much more important than all burnt offerings and sacrifices.” 34 When Jesus saw that he answered wisely, he said to him, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.”
Samuel is the prophet of the Lord, and the Lord says that the purpose of sacrifice and offering is to restore peace and harmony between God and his people, looking forward to the one perfect offering of Jesus Christ, as the book of Hebrews reminds us, and when Saul disobeys God’s explicit command to kill the Amalekites per God’s solemn vow back in the days of Moses in Exodus 17, and pretends that he wishes to observe the law while disobeying the express commands of God, then the kingdom is torn from his hands, as Samuel says. Hypocritical disobedience is a stench in God’s nostrils, as Isaiah 65 says.
Jesus Christ is the embodiment of I Samuel 15:22: Surely, to obey is better than sacrifice, as he himself explains in John 5, “Truly I tell you, the Son can do nothing on his own, but only what he sees the Father doing; for whatever the Father does, the Son does likewise.”
There is no space between the Father’s will and the Son’s obedience. There is no pause for consideration. He not only is the Word of God, he lives the Word of God. It is the engine of his life. Although Saul continues in office as King until the end of the book of I Samuel, in the very next chapter after our reading for today, chapter 16, David is anointed as King by Samuel, and thus begins the series of events that leads to the Son of David fulfilling the promises made to David by God, and our salvation begins.
The Lord said to Samuel, “How long will you grieve over Saul? I have rejected him from being king over Israel. Fill your horn with oil and set out; I will send you to Jesse the Bethlehemite, for I have provided for myself a king among his sons.”… When they came, Samuel looked on Eliab and thought, “Surely the Lord’s anointed is now before the Lord.” 7 But the Lord said to Samuel, “Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature, because I have rejected him; for the Lord does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.”…..Then Samuel took the horn of oil, and anointed David in the presence of his brothers; and the spirit of the Lord came mightily upon David from that day forward..
In Jesus, God takes up the life of David and all his descendants into his very being and nature, as well as all who become one with Jesus Christ. IN ch. 16 we begin to see our own future as we look back to 1000 BC, for God works in God’s way and God’s time.
October 6th, Psalm 42
To know God is to question God. To know God is to weep and mourn. To know God is to question oneself, and to question reality.
All of these statements are theological assertions of a high order. By that, I mean that underlying those initial statements is a truth about God that generates these experiences of questioning and mourning.
In point of fact, the experiences are unavoidable for believers and non-believers, and that fact falls with great weight on the side of the reality and truth of God. These of course are high-level, abstract claims. Let’s drill down a bit to the specifics, first by taking a look at our Psalm.
Perhaps more than others, this Psalm calls out to its hearers. It is at a high level of art and poetry, which some of its English translation have extended for us.
My soul thirsts for God, for the living God. Deep calls to deep, at the thunder of thy cataracts. By day the Lord commands his steadfast love; and at night his song is with me, a prayer to the God of my life. Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you disquieted within me? We’re in the presence, not just of inspiration, but of a kind of genius.
I read that phrase, Deep calls to deep, in a variety of places before I knew it was in the Psalms. It was only going to church with my fiancée and her parents, at an Episcopal church in Gainesville, that I heard much of any of the Psalms other than the 23rd. The deer longs for the flowing streams, his soul longs for God, but the psalmist has nothing to eat or drink but his own tears. The figure of water and its contrasts features prominently in the psalm as well, as is also shown in verse 7.
The psalmist apostrophizes himself, his soul. He places himself within the dialogue. This is common in our own everyday lives. Nowadays we call it self-talk, but we all keep up a running dialogue or commentary that goes on in our mind virtually all the time, mostly silent. At least, I hope I’m not the only one who does this!
Even the mental sickness of hearing “voices in my head” is akin to this, but in that situation, it’s often alien and/or unacceptable voices that are in runaway mode and are unable to be silenced. That’s the particular torment of a type of schizophrenia. No volume control knob.
Here the psalmist, allowing his reader in on his quest for discovery, externalizes the quandary he faces, the quandary between faith and fear, a fear of the loss of faith. The psalmist asks himself why, why are you cast down, O my soul, a puzzling question addressed to himself, which he never overtly seems able to answer in the whole Psalm, though the disquietude is somewhat resolved. Perhaps it’s not answerable in that situation.
The question, “why are you cast down, O my soul” makes little sense without the presumption that, whether or not the cast down state is unusual in terms of frequency, it nonetheless indicates a departure from some sort of norm. To be “cast down,” to be depressed, despondent, despairing, in this way of thinking, is to be away from, outside of, the desirable and expected state of normal human being. It assumes that something is wrong. Otherwise, why would we talk about it that way? It assumes the human soul is somehow deranged, damaged, just off in some way. If to be cast down were normal, we wouldn’t notice it, or react against it. We know something is wrong about this wrongness.
Our experience and the insight generated thereby tells us this. We struggle with ourselves. We rebel against the way things are. We rage against the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, the sea of troubles, the heartache and the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to. Why? Why, if this is the standard state of things? Why, if this is just the way things are? Do trees grieve when their leaves fall? To whom might a rabbit complain when eaten by a hawk? Where are all the depressed squirrels? You see? Why are you cast down, O my soul?
Now I can take no credit for this line of thought. One of the first serious books I read in High School, Mere Christianity by CS Lewis, a book which every Christian should read, and I mean that literally, Lewis says this: “The Christian says, ‘Creatures are not born with desires unless satisfaction for those desires exists. A baby feels hunger: well, there is such a thing as food. A duckling wants to swim: well, there is such a thing as water. Men feel sexual desire: well, there is such a thing as sex. If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world.’”
Now this is Lewis’ positive take on the Psalmist’s negative quandary, Why are you cast down, O my Soul?
The existence of the human in all its joys and sorrows and even existential dread points outside, points away from ourselves. There is indeed a question that must be dealt with. Lewis asserts that as satisfaction follows desire, or at least the possibility and credibility of a satisfaction existing for every desire, so an answer must follow a question as night follows the day.
My soul thirsts for the living God. To ask why is to run afoul of the evidentiary objection that lawyers love to bring up, “asked and answered, Your Honor.” The fact that someone, and not just one, but down through recorded history, many, have longed for God, is to answer the question, to at least some degree.
Now, of course, reasoning that our human puzzlement and longing can lead us to a certain reassurance about God, is not revelation. To argue that God must exist, because we desire him, is no form of proof. For the creator of the very concept of proof itself, is beyond all human control. God is beyond all the rational proofs we can offer about isosceles triangles and planetary ellipses. But just as human longing cannot prove the existence of God, neither is a shell casing at a crime scene, proof of a homicide. But what reasonable detective would ignore it and walk away from such a clue? The unseriousness of much modern atheism is an insult to human reason itself.
The answer that the question asks for, the longing that is placed within our hearts because of who made us, prepares us not just to understand but to welcome the revelation of who God is in Jesus Christ.
This is the background of Psalm 42. It’s beautiful simply in its form, is it not? Here we need to acknowledge that we didn’t hear the whole Psalm. Psalm 42 and 43 were at some point in time divided, but if you keep reading, you hear the third stanza of the three, the first two of which we heard in Psalm 42. The writer is despondent, in 42:1-4, and sums up his thought, in the first refrain, let’s call it, of verse 5, “Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you disquieted within me? Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my help 6 and my God.”
Verses 6-10 expand upon his complaint and intensify his disappointment, abandonment, and affliction. This is followed, in the last verse of Ps. 42, vs. 11, with the second use of the same refrain, Why are you cast down, O my soul? And then in vss. 1-4 of Ps. 43, we hear more of a prayer rather than a complaint, though that’s still present in vs. 2, “Why hast thou cast me off?” But the mood, the tone, and the direction lighten and improve in Psalm 43. “Then I will go to the altar of God, to God my exceeding joy; and I will praise thee with the harp, O God, my God.”
Sometimes the simplest language carries the most beauty and power, and perhaps those two go together for a reason. “I will praise thee with the harp, O God, my God.”
O God, my God. The claim in that last phrase brings him home, it brings the Psalmist across the finish line so to speak. “O God” is light years away from My God, is it not? In the last two words, “My God,” you can hear the claim, the response, the hope, and the faith. Can one, would one, say My God, if one did not know this God?
My initial assertion, that the truth about God generates our questioning, our mourning, our despondency, is comprised of this: though God has never abandoned his creation, the invasion of the created world of humanity by Jesus Christ is the fullest, most comprehensive, though not the only, example of the promise of God which creates our longing, our desire. Why long, why desire, if one is already full and satisfied? To crest the top of a mountain and see the next afar off, is to long to go to the next mountain, there, off in the distance. There’s more. One hasn’t yet reached the end, the goal.
To know the truth of God in Jesus Christ, a self-emptying and thus self-giving God; a God who makes room for the human in a way that not only defines but transforms the nature of grace, is to be filled with a deeper, more acute longing for that which we don’t yet possess.
I have given you a land full of milk and honey, a promised land, a paradise which is yours because I have chosen you. But we’re not there, yet. Illness, accident, evil is sometimes our lot in life. As Edgar said in King Lear to Gloucester: “Men must endure their going hence even as their coming hither. Ripeness is all.”
Ripeness is all. There is a time for all things, and our time is in God’s hands. Our dismay at our own emptiness, our own disappointment, is because we know we were made to be filled, we were made to meet that appointment that was made for us the moment God said, Let there be Light. Perhaps before, for who can fathom God’s purposes and plans, or put him to a schedule? Ripeness is all. In God’s time, the harvest will be brought in. But only in his time.
And our desire, our longing for God can sometimes interfere, conflict with our faith in that that promise of God.
Why are you cast down, O my Soul? Hope in God, for I shall again praise him. Send out thy light and thy truth; let them lead me, let them bring me to thy holy hill and to thy dwelling.
What is this but the promised city of Jerusalem, the holy hill, Mt. Zion, and the throne of God in the holy of holies in the tabernacle, where the cloud of God’s presence descended at the holy moments of sacrifice.
God creates our love from our longing, and gives us emptiness so that there might be room to be filled. Christmas is only Christmas, because we must wait for it. It is the waiting, every year, the longing, that creates the gift.
The grace of God is in the Gift of preparation. The gift of Preparation is God’s Grace. The gift of time. The gift of emptiness, that we might be filled. Emptiness, without which we could not be filled.
Why art thou cast down, O my soul? and why art thou disquieted within me? Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my help and my God.
September 27th, Luke 9:43b-62
The burial of the dead is a cultural topic that is found in all periods of accessible human history. Burials of Neanderthals from over 50,000 years ago have been examined very carefully, and specifically noted for the fact that they were not just disposals of the body but were buried in a way to prevent the disturbance of their bodies by scavengers and predators.
Over 30,000 years ago, there is evidence found in what are called Cro-Magnon burials of further, more developed rituals and reverence for the dead, with primitive bracelets and necklaces as well as valuable tools and weapons found buried with the dead.
One of the most shocking aspects of Homer’s Iliad, in an already blood-drenched epic is the death of Hector. After Achilles chases him around the walls of Troy three times, he kills him with a spear, allows the other Greek soldiers to abuse his dead body, and over the next nine days, daily drags the dead body of Hector behind his chariot around the walls of Troy in full view of Hector’s father and mother and widow, until Zeus intercedes and sends the god Hermes to accompany Hector’s father Priam to the camp of Achilles to beg for his son’s mutilated body so it can be given a burial.
In the mythologies of Ancient Greece Antigone is remembered in Sophocles play from the fifth century BC, for her struggle to give her brother Polynikes a simple burial which had been denied to him because of his politics.
The writer of Genesis tells the story of Abraham, the wandering Aramean, negotiating with the Hittites for the purchase of a small plot of land where he can bury his wife Sarah, for he is a nomad, with a promise, but with no land of his own. The book of Genesis ends with the death of Jacob, Sarah’s grandson, and this exchange between Pharaoh and Jacob’s son, Joseph: “Then Joseph fell on his father's face and wept over him and kissed him….
4 And when the days of weeping for him were past, Joseph spoke to the household of Pharaoh, saying, “If now I have found favor in your eyes, please speak in the ears of Pharaoh, saying, 5 ‘My father made me swear, saying, “I am about to die: in my tomb that I hewed out for myself in the land of Canaan, there shall you bury me.” Now therefore, let me please go up and bury my father. Then I will return.’” 6 And Pharaoh answered, “Go up, and bury your father, as he made you swear.”
In the apocryphal book of Tobit we read Tobit’s words in ch. 1, “In the days of Shalmaneser I performed many acts of charity to my brethren. 17 I would give my bread to the hungry and my clothing to the naked; and if I saw any one of my people dead and thrown out behind the wall of Nineveh, I would bury him. 18 And if Sennacherib the king put to death any who came fleeing from Judea, I buried them secretly. For in his anger he put many to death. When the bodies were sought by the king, they were not found. 19 Then one of the men of Nineveh went and informed the king about me, that I was burying them; so I hid myself. When I learned that I was being searched for, to be put to death, I left home in fear. 20 Then all my property was confiscated and nothing was left to me except my wife Anna and my son Tobias.”
And in the Rabbinic tractate Berakoth, from the Mishnah, we read, “One who is confronted by a dead relative, is freed from reciting the Shema, from the 18 Benedictions, and from all the commandments stated in the Torah.”
To bury the dead was, and still is, an act of Jewish piety and righteousness. There are doubtless other sources that could be cited from Asian, African and Native American cultures, especially the Navajo, on the necessity of the proper treatment of the dead and the bad things that result from a failure to enact the proper rituals.
One can almost write a history of the development, the progress of human civilization, in how the dead are cared for, attended, placated, sometimes feared. Many, if not most, of the non-Jewish rituals and practices came about specifically to limit the dead from any connection with the living and control any influence or power the dead, or their ghosts, have over the living.
In the Roman world, the dead were always buried outside the sacred precincts of the city walls. The city was hallowed by the gods through the presence of their temples within the city, and no dead body could be buried within the city. The Navajo bury their dead as far away as feasible, and if the deceased has died in their home, the hogan, it is destroyed and burned, along with any possessions. In the Navajo culture, contact with the dead leads to a great deal of misfortune, so as few Navajo family members as possible participate in the funeral. But there are rules, hard and fast, that virtually all traditional societies followed on dealing with deceased family members.
And Jesus says, not to a critic, not to an opponent, but to one whom Jesus has called to follow him, and who just needs a little time to bury his father, “Let the dead bury the dead.”
How to describe such a response? Rude? Uncaring, unfeeling, unsympathetic? Un-everything that most all of us value nowadays? This is known as one, of many, of Jesus’ Hard Sayings, along with cutting off your hand to avoid sin, turning the other cheek, hating one’s family, casting fire on the earth, I don’t come to bring peace but a sword.
There are many like this. They bring us good news, for, as even the temple guards said to the Sanhedrin when they returned after being sent to arrest him in John 7, “Never man spake like this man.”
Ever since then mountebanks and quacks and charlatans have used this kind of rhetoric to bully the crowd, speaking in antinomies, pretending to reveal a truth in incompatibilities.
But this phrase, and much of Jesus’ other teaching fits only into the identity of Jesus himself, as well as the Bad News/Good News structure of the Gospel.
I don’t know if I made up that Bad News/Good News phrase to describe the dynamic of the Gospel or if I got it from someone else. It’s more than just, “Tell me the bad news first.” We’ve all probably heard that, or said it.
No, it has to do with who and what we are, as fallen human beings, as well as how that fallenness shapes our perceptions, mainly about ourselves and our capabilities. With regard to the first aspect, the truly good news/bad news scenario would be that regardless of how bad we are, regardless of our individual wickedness, hatefulness and unrighteousness, we’re going to live forever. As bad as we wanna be.
This is what JRR Tolkien meant by “the First Mercy;” that Adam and Eve were cast out of Eden after eating of the tree of the knowledge of Good and Evil, and before they had eaten as well of the Tree of Life, as Genesis 3:22 tells us. An eternal life of wickedness would be a torture from which they, in the First Mercy, were rescued.
The book of Hebrews sees the way this works out by analogy with our human father, in ch. 12, ““My son, do not regard lightly the discipline of the Lord, nor be weary when reproved by him. 6 For the Lord disciplines the one he loves, and chastises every son whom he receives.” 7 It is for discipline that you have to endure. God is treating you as sons. For what son is there whom his father does not discipline? 8 If you are left without discipline, in which all have participated, then you are illegitimate children and not sons.”
The horse developed from a small herd animal in the Middle East to the horse of today, the Clydesdale, the Percheron, the Racehorse, the Quarter Horse, to all the types of horse in today’s world, through its development alongside humanity and human culture, through discipline—breeding and training.
This First Mercy of God left us in a world of gravity, and pain, and heartache and death. Though it was the First Mercy, in order of time the bad news came first, of necessity, and the good news after.
Let’s back up and look at the person, the identity of Jesus. “Never man spake as this man,” said those unlikely hostile witnesses, the temple guards. What does that mean? Well at least one thing it means is that because of who he was, Jesus could say things like “Let the dead bury the dead,” or, “no one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.”
Now normally, we would say in response, Who do you think you are? That’s ridiculous, that’s nonsense, that’s sacrilegious! But those who heard him, even those who didn’t agree, were rocked back a bit. Everyone was allowed freedom, and some rejected him, but a man who could say those things, and then lift a dead child alive from the bier before he’s buried, a man who could with a word of rebuke to evil drive him out of a child, demon-possessed, a man who could not only forgive sin, and assert the right to, but also speak healing and make the lame to walk; people listened to him in a new way.
No man ever spake like this man. This man accords to himself the words and deeds and things of God. Moses says, but I say unto you. I say unto you? Jesus came speaking of the kingdom of God, and he spoke as the King. He acted with a royal freedom. He asserted his rule of not just that which is important to every person, not just our burdens, our needs, our sins; he asserted his rule of that which is eternal, his rule of the powers of nature, and a rule of the darkness that plagued the world and the inner darkness of humanity. For Jesus knew the hearts of his hearers.
Almighty God, unto whom all hearts are open. In Luke 9 Jesus is not struggling for a hearing, for acceptance, he is merely placing his finger on the wound of sin. He is laying his hand, where it hurts. Which is our own desire to author our own story, rather than follow his script. We want to be his followers, we want to be on his team, in our own way, our own manner and in our own good time. We want to make the decisions that are not ours to make.
It’s not a matter of preferring Ford to Chevy. It’s not a matter of preferring Jif to Skippy. These Hard Sayings in Luke 9 confront us with that with which we don’t want to be confronted. For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and lose his soul?
When the Son of Man, to whom every knee shall bow, calls a man, it is not time for excuses and delays. When one says “I will follow you Lord” there are no reservations. There is no clause at the bottom for exceptions, for the initial statement, the initial call, the initial response, cancels out everything that might stand in its way.
You can compare how far it is from Murfreesboro to Chattanooga, to how far it is from earth to the sun. It’s a big difference, but it can be measured. 101 miles, versus 93 million miles. Big difference. Now compare how long you’ve been alive on earth to the life of God. You see? How long will we be in heaven? How long is eternity? How big is an elephant? How big is God?
This man spake as no man ever spake. The bad news first. My fallenness means I want to do it myself, I want to save myself, I want to make my own decisions, I want to be what I want to be. This is my life, we say. All of that was vastly expanded and intensified by Immanuel Kant and the Enlightenment.
In 1784, as an aspect of the then emerging German Enlightenment, a Prussian official addressed a proposal in the Berlin Monthly, namely, “"Proposal, not to engage the clergy any longer when marriages are conducted." 1784. That was a public policy proposal. Very interesting that this foundational human institution was what they felt should first be addressed.
In response to the question, What is The Enlightenment? asked by Friedrich Zollner, a year earlier, Kant wrote an essay, which begins with this: “Enlightenment is man's emergence from his self-imposed nonage. Nonage is the inability to use one's own understanding without another's guidance. This nonage is self-imposed if its cause lies not in lack of understanding but in indecision and lack of courage to use one's own mind without another's guidance. Dare to know! "Have the courage to use your own understanding," is therefore the motto of the enlightenment.” That’s how he began his essay. And also, by the way, began the process destroying western civilization.
This was all understood as man’s emergence from the tyranny so-called, of religion and the church. This so-called Enlightenment is predicated on the second aspect of our fallenness, as I said earlier, not just our fallenness, our predisposition to sin, but how our fallenness shapes our perceptions. It’s probably not wrong to think wisdom accrues to the older generation, but that may be just a function of having had more time to make more mistakes.
There is a human wisdom that, while valuable, has nothing to do with the wisdom which Proverbs calls the fear of God. And it is this which is necessary to teach us to truly perceive, to truly understand, and to truly worship God. As James says, “But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere. 18 And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace.”
Every phrase in those two verses from James ch. 3 connect back to the teaching of Jesus and the Wisdom tradition of the OT. Each phrase lands with force on the pretensions of Godless humanity. Kant believed we needed to be liberated from tradition, liberated from faith, liberated from trust in God’s word, trust in the priest or the pastor.
But true wisdom, and the illumination of the spirit, leads the apostle Paul to write to the Romans in ch.6, “But now that you have been set free from sin and have become slaves of God, the benefit you reap leads to holiness, and the result is eternal life.”
As the hand wrote on the wall to Belshazzar, “Mene, Mene, God has numbered the days of your kingdom and brought it to an end; 27 Tekel, you have been weighed in the balances and found wanting.” This is our condition.
Our days are numbered, and we have been found wanting. As Isaiah says, even the princes are but a drop in the bucket. No man ever spake like this man. To understand the Good News, we must believe the Bad News. To give thanks for the Glad Tidings, we take on board who we are within, the cost of our redemption, and the freedom we are offered, which is the only true freedom.
We are called, we are chosen, a decree has gone forth, God’s mercy has condemned us to this world, that we might find his mercy. God’s wrath has fallen on his son, that our sins and their power might be destroyed. As the prayer of Habakkuk began: “O Lord, I have heard the report of you,
and your work, O Lord, do I fear.
In the midst of the years revive it;
in the midst of the years make it known;
in wrath remember mercy.
Sermon, September 6th; Luke 7:36-50
Do you like Pharisees? Think carefully before you answer, because this will be on the text. As I’ve said before, context is vitally important to understanding any text, texts in the scriptures and other texts. But the context to which I’m referring now, is our context today, here, in this room, at this moment. Forget the elections, forget the riots, forget the virus. We have heard the Word of God, this morning, and to it, we must attend.
Our context is partly revealed by reflecting on why we are here, and how we might correctly understand and answer that why. Part of the why is that we are called to be here. When many were abandoning Jesus, even early on, he asked the Twelve, “Do you want to go away as well? Just as, later in the Garden, he said, “Could you not watch with me one hour?” We are called, we are summoned.
Jesus even said, many are called, but few are chosen, and not all who were called to be here today have answered that call.
The Word of God is publicly proclaimed around the table of the Lord each Lord’s Day. Our use of that phrase, The Lord’s Day, is a good reminder of how the phrase, The Day of the Lord, was transformed by Jesus’ death on the cross, for Judgment fell on humanity on that day, as Amos and other prophets had promised, but the Day of the Lord on that Good Friday illustrates why we call it Good, and why now, this day of Resurrection has become a Day of the Lord, because it is the Lord’s Day. It partakes of the OT notion of the Sabbath as a day of remembrance, and a day of obligation. Creation is a gift, and the Sabbath is a gift, given, in one sense, so that the gift might not be forgotten. But also, when we say The Lord’s Day, we’re reminded that God has turned judgment into salvation, without in any way undermining or compromising his own righteousness and holiness.
It’s worth noting that the Word of God, while accomplishing his purposes, does many things, and the same text of scripture can be used by the Holy Spirit in different ways for different people. Not the least of the implications of this is that the human interpreter cannot limit or bind or restrict the activities of the Spirit and the intentions of the Word of God.
This gives no license to the reader, but rather a stricter method, and a realization upon every fresh reading whose word we are reading, and who sets the tone and purposes of God’s Word.
What you need to hear today may be different from your pewmates, yet the Word of God is sufficient. That Word which, when uttered, brings light and life into being, is not in any way challenged or hindered by our different needs, for who made our ears and our hearts but the Lord?
Do you need to hear today that Jesus sees your tears, like the tears he felt in Simon’s house? Do you need to know that Jesus hears your sobs of grief and repentance? Do you need to hear that your sins are not too great a mountain for Jesus to climb, nor too great a ditch for Jesus to cross? Do you need to hear that your old sins, long unconfessed, the debt constantly growing, and the weight increasing, are but a drop in the bucket to God’s compassion?
For when those in Simon’s house said among themselves, “Who is this who even forgives sins?” The question clearly answers itself. They know. No one can forgive someone else’s sins but God himself. In those words that Jesus spoke, directly to the prostitute, “Your sins are forgiven.”
The echoes reverberated down the halls of time: Here is what the dinner guests actually heard when Jesus spoke, and what we should know as well: Moses asked on Mt. Sinai, to see God’s glory, and this is God’s response. ““The LORD, the LORD, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin.”
Do you need to hear that Jesus knew, and still knows, even today, at this hour what is in the heart of every person? Almighty God, unto whom all hearts are open?
You may have come to worship to feel superior to all the hypocrites, you may come to church to burn it down, though I hope not, you may come to church to destroy a life with gossip, you may come to church just so you can walk out shortly after worship begins, it doesn’t matter why we’ve come to church, the power of the Word of God is sufficient, and will accomplish his purpose. Whatever that may be. And we mustn’t think we always know what that is.
We may talk of the Word of God as an active, personal, divine agent, for that is how the Word is presented to us in the scriptures. One of our callings is to conform our thinking and reasoning and living to the form of speech we find in God’s Word.
And when I speak of God’s Word, I mean that which is living and active, which knows all and sees all and says what each of us needs to hear at any moment. We think we are the agents of knowing. We read the text; we decide what it means. But he says, to all who will hear, in the words of the Psalmist: “O LORD, you have searched me and you know me. You know when I sit and when I rise; you perceive my thoughts from afar. You discern my going out and my lying down; you are familiar with all my ways. Before a word is on my tongue you know it completely, O LORD.”
To read the text is to be read, by the text, by the Word.
When we come to Luke 7, we appropriately ask, what exactly does “Your sins are forgiven,” mean? Remember, when we come to God’s Word, our first response is to be, I don’t know what this means, in spite of what I think. The message Jesus’ words in Luke 7 carries is so much more….cosmic, let’s say, then what is experienced in the immediate moment by the forgiven sinner.
I shared with my Hebrews class last week about a teenage girl in our church when I was growing up who went forward just about every month or so at the invitation hymn on Sunday night. Some of you remember church three times a week, don’t you, back before Ed Sullivan and Topo Gigio and Lamb Chop came along on Sunday evenings. Lamb Chop was a pretty big deal. Still is. Did you know Lamb Chop testified before Congress? Bet you never did that. Did you know Lamb Chop is also a 3-Star General in the US Marine Corps. So there’s that.
Anyway, this young woman hears something. Someone was calling her. She was a baptized believer, but she kept going forward. I don’t exactly know why, I never did. She said she wanted to rededicate her life. Some of us made fun of her among ourselves, and would bet one another on whether or not she would go forward on any given Sunday, because you just never knew.
Never stake anything of importance on the empathy and compassion of a teenage boy, but you probably already know that.
What was she seeking? Why had not she found it, already? What strange confluence of events, causes and influences have me now remembering her and talking about her with you over 50 years later? Her life. She said she wanted to rededicate her life to the Lord.
What is God doing in this passage? We know he is speaking. “Day to day pours forth speech,” the Psalmist tells us.
There is a danger in coming to a text like ours today without preparation, for the unprepared heart is tempted to regard Simon as that which we don’t want to be, never want to be, and thus fall into the trap. It’s like if you ask yourself, Am I humble? Some things it’s best to leave alone.
But our text today makes us look at ourselves. “I entered your house, Simon, yet you gave me no kiss.” I wonder what they’re doing in France these days, with all that kissing? I guess you’d get used to it. Kiss on the right, kiss on the left, kiss on the right. But if we’re not even shaking hands, I imagine they’ve dropped the kissing for awhile.
Apparently, the kiss was an expected part of a standard greeting in Jesus’s day, and his world. And this absence of a kiss is combined with the absence of other normal signs of welcome. In those days you were supposed to wash their feet and oil their hair as well, it appears from Jesus’ statement. “I’m your guest, Simon and you did none of this for me, but this woman with her tears, and her hair, and her ointment, has loved greatly.”
You heard the way this went. Jesus is invited to eat with Simon, a common name, in those days, Simon the Maccabean being one of their well-remembered heroes. Simon is identified for us as a Pharisee, and that’s all we know, except to know that he has a house, which not everyone did.
It’s difficult to picture some of this, until we remember the nature of houses in the Mediterranean world back then, for houses were somewhat open-air, and privacy was not like it is today. Privacy was not a functioning practice. At a meal like this, a leading citizen invites the latest big noise to his house for dinner, there would be a lot of onlookers, kibitzers, standing around, hanging out in the ante-chambers, just to see, just to hear. To see what is the latest dish, how much food there is, maybe listen to the conversation of these important people.
And there was always the chance of some leftovers. No one lived or moved or traveled alone in those days. A Roman grandee had people lined up to see him first thing in the morning. He was their patron, their “Padrone,” everybody needed a little something, and the Roman Senator or member of any of the upper classes would hand out a few coins to anyone he recognized.
In Jesus’ world, there were people around all the time, hanging on his words, hoping to be healed, to be helped in some way. The Jews, even the strictest apparently, had absorbed some of the Greco/Roman cultural practices in spite of their resistance to much of it.
How is this woman of the city, this “sinner,” able to cry on Jesus feet while he’s eating supper? Is she down there scrabbling around under the table? No, apparently the Jews of Jesus’ day had also adopted the symposium-style dinner, where the men, lounged around a horseshoe shaped table, lying on their sides on couches, eating in a relaxed style while laying on pillow and cushions.
It’s not that someone has wandered in to his home that has alarmed Simon, but who, or what, she is. A Sinner. A woman of the city. Simon is already treading a fine line with his Mediterranean dining style, and this woman alarms him because the other part of the upper-class Greco/Roman dining style, was the provision of what were euphemistically called “flute-girls” who provided the soft soothing background music, but who in reality, were paid to provide sexual services to the rich and powerful men present.
It’s hard for us to feature just how drastically different Jewish sexual mores and practices were from the surrounding cultures of the day. Aline Rousselle, studied this world most carefully, and essentially the only person off limits to a Roman man’s sexual depredations was a Roman woman married to a man of his class or higher. All others may as well have been working for Harvey Weinstein.
One commentator said Jesus did not even need to turn around to see the source of the dropping of liquid, tears, on his feet. All he had to do was read the horror on Simon’s face, to know what was happening.
And because he knows the secrets of the heart, he knows what Simon now thinks of him, and is perhaps wishing he had not invited Jesus in the first place.
But in the tradition of the symposium from way back, Jesus begins to question Simon. He tells him a story, a parable and concludes with a question. Notice, in this overall story about forgiveness, Jesus tells a smaller story within the story about a creditor and two debtors, who owe vastly unequal debts to their common creditor. Three characters in the outer story, three characters in the inner story. Two characters owe a debt, which is forgiven by the third character.
The weeping, the sobbing, the cleansing, the sacrifice of an extremely valuable ointment, perhaps even one of the tools of her unfortunate trade, to anoint his feet, this is the context of the story Jesus tells Simon.
Jesus tells the story, and asks Simon who will love his creditor more? Simon says, in virtually every translation I could find, says, “I suppose, the one who was forgiven more.” I suppose! There is Simon’s guilty plea right there, for he knows he doesn’t love like the woman. And Jesus spells that out for him. And then he says to her, “Your sins are forgiven.” And even while the others are wondering about that, he says to her, “Your faith has saved you; go in peace.”
What was it that brought her to the supper, uninvited? What was it that made her think she could weep over the feet of this respected Rabbi, and possibly compromise him in the eyes of the world? What was it that made her think she could touch, the bare feet and legs of this preacher of the kingdom of God, in the home, once again uninvited, of a Pharisee giving a supper for Jesus and other men, men who may have known her more immediately than they would want to admit.
Your faith has saved you. Her faith drove her to that dinner. It drove her to gratitude. Her faith drove her, when she couldn’t speak because her heart was too full of mercy received, to the only language she had, which was too weep uncontrollably, to love in the only way she could, to serve, to respect, to give.
Jesus doesn’t pretend there’s nothing wrong. Jesus doesn’t pretend that sin doesn’t exist, doesn’t distort, divide, control, warp and destroy the lives of all that it touches. Which is everyone. Including Simon.
He only says, because he IS the Word of God, he says, “Let there be light.” It doesn’t sound like that to us, we hear “Your sins are forgiven.” But the word of God always says, “Let there be light.” You see how that works? Light creates, cleanses, restores, protects, reveals. Let there be light. Let the good world exist and go forward. Let the renewing act of God be found on the level of the poor, and the guilty, and the crushed and the lonely and the forgotten. Let their names be known, let men in pulpits speak about them thousands of years in the future.
Let there be light.
Psalm 32, August 30, 2020
What is sin? What is a sin? What does sin do? As I said last week, my grandmother reminded her wicked little grandsons that “your sins will find you out.” You can’t hide from the effects of your sin, was the message I received. Of course, when I was 8 years old, I would have liked to have heard more of Psalm 32 than Numbers 32. Psalm 32 begins “Blessed is he whose transgression is forgiven; whose sin is covered.”
I don’t want you to get the wrong idea about my grandmother, who was a hard-working mother, hard done by in many ways. From 1917 to 1931, she bore eight children, four boys and four girls, and my grandfather, who talked her into leaving Jacksonville and moving to the countryside during the depression, was often gone the entire work week, working for Railway Express, the national Package Delivery service, back when most things went by the railroad.
This is one reason the sheriff gave my mother a driver’s license when she was 12 years old, because neither of her parents knew how to drive a car and during the war my uncles had moved away, three of them in the service, and so my mother had to pick up my grandfather at the bus station when he got off work for the weekend.
I grew up hearing all the funny stories about growing up on the farm, and my mother getting chased around the house by my grandmother, and my grandfather giving my mother a nickel every time he came home which she ran and buried in the back yard, about my mother hitting a cow in the road when she was 14.
But there was sin in my mother’s family, and my father’s, as well as yours, and mine. Sin can be called the “inheritance” that no one ever misses out on. Some say we’ve all got the coronavirus by now. We’ve all got the antibodies. Whether or not that’s true, it’s certainly the case we’ve all inherited a sinful nature.
I had an aunt who had a glass eye. She made jokes about it when I was kid, we never to know what to think. The story I heard for years was that it happened in a volleyball game at high school and somebody spiked the ball. It was an accident, was what I heard. My sister says it happened in a softball gave and one of my uncles threw the ball at her when she wasn’t looking, and it hit her in the face. Was that an accident? Good clean fun? He certainly wouldn’t have been intending to blind his sister. But she lost an eye because of it. Her life was irreparably changed because of that day.
But I never heard that talked about when I was growing. Some things you don’t say in front of the children, I guess. She joked about it all the time when we were kids, but I think my mother knew about the real heartache that was a result of that day. My aunt eventually married, but for years she suffered with the imagined stigma of thinking that everybody was staring at her. Wondering which was the real eye.
Sin runs in families, doesn’t it? We pass it along, unwillingly, unknowingly. We can all think of examples of the lasting effects of sin in life. We do things, or say things, we later wish we had not. Things are done or said to us, we wish had not been. But we have to live with them. Not every sin just goes away, when we forgive and forget.
I can’t remember the name of the kid in my sixth-grade class that me and my buddies excluded from our lunch room table. There were three of us, Steve Odom, Steve Strickland, Steve Lewis. We had a club, and well, if your name wasn’t Steve you couldn’t be in our club. No Johns, or Bobs or Howards allowed.
We’re standing together in line in the lunchroom, and boy, wasn’t that fun? Unairconditioned lunches in Florida with 200 other smelly kids who didn’t use deodorant and the fragrance of spoiled milk everywhere. Not really spoiled but just a little, off. Somebody always dropped their little half pint of milk carton, and the garbage dumpster was usually just outside the open windows of the lunchroom, for convenience, I assume. Certainly not for our dining pleasure.
Anyway, there we are and this new kid is acting like he’s gonna sit with us. The nerve!
I said, You’re not in our club. What club? Our club. How do you get in the club? What’s your name? Howard. Sorry. This is a club for Steves. There was this other kid with us, Gary. What about him? he said. His name’s not Steve. He’s honorary. You can’t sit with us.
Now, on the scale of the atrocities of history, that’s a drop in the bucket, but, some buckets are filled a drop at a time. Things build up. They get worse, they boil over.
Sometimes the Bible talks about the “stain” of sin, as in Jeremiah 2:22, “Though you wash yourself with lye and use much soap, the stain of your guilt is still before me, says the Lord God.” And in the letter of James, 3:6 we read: “ The tongue is an unrighteous world among our members, staining the whole body, setting on fire the cycle of nature,[a] and set on fire by hell.”
This fits well with the Biblical notion of washing away sin, the washing clean effect of baptism being one of those metaphors that come readily to mind, as in Hebrews 10, “let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water.” Or in Revelation 7, “These are they who have come out of the great tribulation; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.”
We use metaphors all the time and not just in the Bible. Metaphors are intrinsic to our everyday speech. The language we use about “argument” has an effect on the way we think about argument.
I demolished his argument, we say.
I’ve never won an argument with him.
He shot down all my arguments.
Her criticisms were right on target.
Once war, or that is to say, an argument has been declared, we feel the necessity to win the argument. You certainly don’t want to LOSE. You see, metaphors frame our thinking, not just about arguments, but about everything. I couldn’t preach a sermon, or talk about hardly anything without metaphor, whether overt or covert, obvious or subtle.
Some language theorists go so far as to say all language is made of metaphors, that they are the building blocks of all discourse. Most of these metaphors have been lost in the ancient history of language and we’re no longer aware of them.
The way we talk about sin affects the way we think about sin, and not only how we think, but how we conduct ourselves with regard to right and wrong, and in relations with God, and with one another, for Proverbs 23 reminds us, “as a man thinks in his heart, so is he.”
The words, the language, the stories, the metaphors you rehearse within yourself as you go through your day determine who you are. Sometimes, in reflecting upon sin, we speak of accidents, mistakes, misjudgments, even peccadilloes.
We speak of transgressions, misdeeds, errors, misdemeanors, moral lapses, shortcomings, failures, trespasses, debts. Sin, the shortest of such words, makes us sometimes uneasy. It sometimes depends on who we’re talking about. My misjudgment is a failing in my friend, and an obvious sin in my enemy.
But all of them connect to a metaphor somewhere in the history of their use in language. And they’re all sometimes, appropriate in their use for our own or others deeds.
Sin has a history. Certainly in the Bible we can see that. In Leviticus 16 we read that the High Priest places the sins of the people on the head of a goat. This is where the notion of a scape-goat comes from, first translated in that way by William Tyndale in 1530. Leviticus says: 21Then Aaron shall lay both his hands on the head of the live goat, and confess over it all the iniquities of the people of Israel, and all their transgressions, all their sins, putting them on the head of the goat, and sending it away into the wilderness by means of someone designated for the task. 22The goat shall bear on itself all their iniquities to a barren region; and the goat shall be set free in the wilderness.
Scape goat was short for “Escape Goat.” The sins, in this understanding, are conceived of as a burden, a weight, having an existence that can be transferred, that can be removed from one, or many, and placed on another. This is one way the Bible talks about sin. You can hear it in Psalm 32, in vss. 3 & 4: “While I kept silence, my body wasted away through my groaning all day long. 4 For day and night your hand was heavy upon me; my strength was dried up[a] as by the heat of summer.”
The psalmist has discovered the weight, the burden of unconfessed sin. Back in Texas the church had a full-sized basketball gym, and me and a couple other guys walked round and round the gym in the morning for our health. We were like mall walkers, but we had no mall. I wore this vest that had iron bars in the pockets all over it and if it was full it weighed 40 pounds. You can imagine how good it felt to take that vest off after walking for 45 minutes wearing it.
Though a fictional character, Emma Woodhouse, the eponymous protagonist of Jane Austen’s novel, carried the burden of her sin, of publicly shaming a neighbor, Miss Bates, at a picnic in front of several others. Miss Bates is garrulous, always talking, always gossiping, lonely, and very self-conscious around her “betters,” as they would have said in the early 1800s. Miss Bates is an unmarried middle aged woman living with and looking after her widowed mother, Mrs. Bates, who is stone deaf, and they are on the edge of genteel poverty, while Emma is wealthy in her own right, and at the end of the novel, will be even more so, when she marries Mr. Knightley.
At the picnic, one of the eligible young men, Frank Churchill, suggests that each of the seven members must say to Emma “two things moderately clever-or three things very dull indeed,” to which Miss Bates replies in a self-deprecating way, “I shall be sure to say three dull things as soon as ever I open my mouth”. Unfortunately, in a vain attempt at humor, Emma says in response, ‘Ah! Ma’am but there may be a difficulty. Parton me – but you will be limited as to number – only three.’”
You can see the verbal dagger go home on Miss Bates face in the filmed version of the novel. Her shame, her pain, is excruciating to watch. And later when Miss Woodhouse is privately reprimanded by Mr. Knightley, you can see her pain at failing the one man whose opinion matters to her. She carries that burden through much of the novel, and even Miss Bates refuses to see her, when she tries to apologize.
But sin as a weight, a burden is not the only way the Bible describes our sin, for even in this Psalm, vs. 5 expands upon the metaphors for that which divides us from God, “Then I acknowledged my sin to you, and I did not hide my iniquity; I said, “I will confess my transgressions to the Lord,” and you forgave the guilt of my sin.”
Iniquity, transgression, and guilt. Iniquity referring to an inner defect in character, transgression having to do with crossing a line, violating a precept, and guilt, speaking from a legal or courtroom context, the state of being in violation of a law, though we nowadays think of guilt as an inner feeling, feeling guilty, the way we imagine our dogs feel when we come home and they’ve chewed up our shoes.
Psalm 32 uses a variety of ways to talk about sin, but by the time of Jesus’ day, the notion of sin as debt is prominent. Though we pray, “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us,” because that’s the way the Lord’s prayer appeared in Tyndale’s English translation and in the first English Book of Common prayer, virtually all translations since that time render Matthew 6 “And forgive us our debts, As we also have forgiven our debtors.”
The notion of sin as a debt incurred is used often. In Jesus’ parable in Matthew 18, the man thrown into debtor’s prison because he owed some huge sum, and, when forgiven, demands from an acquaintance that he pay him the small sum he owes him uses debt to illustrate how sin may be thought of.
Jesus lived after a time when debt had become a much more common metaphor for sin in the prophets and some of the Torah. We have this concept still in our legal system when we talk about financial debt being “forgiven.” IN the sermon on the mount Jesus talks about settling up with anyone who has “something against” us, for if not, our accuser will hand us over to the judge and we will be put in prison and never get out till we’ve paid the last penny.
Is he just talking about lawcourts here? In the very next chapter, ch. 6, Jesus is talking about the giving of alms in verse 4, and forgiving our debtors in verse 12, and in verse 19, he reminds us not to lay up treasures on earth, but to lay up for ourselves treasures in heaven.
Jews in the few centuries before Jesus’ time thought of the good they did, especially the alms they gave to the desperately poor, as treasure, or “credit,” that God would weigh up in the balance sheet against our debt, of sin. This is a commonplace not only in the Sermon on the Mount but in the Apocrypha and in Isaiah 40:2 “Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and proclaim to her that her hard service has been completed, that her sin has been paid for, that she has received from the LORD's hand double for all her sins.”
Their debt has been paid by the time in exile. In Jeremiah he talks about the Sabbaths that were ignored for so long have been completed while they were in Babylon, and they may return. The debt has been paid.
However we come to the presence of God, Psalm 32 is helpful for us to hear the story of the Psalmist, a fellow sinner: “Then I acknowledged my sin to you, and I did not hide my iniquity; I said, “I will confess my transgressions to the Lord,” and you forgave the guilt of my sin. 6 Therefore let all who are faithful offer prayer to you; at a time of distress the rush of mighty waters
shall not reach them. 7 You are a hiding place for me; you preserve me from trouble; you surround me with glad cries of deliverance.”
Some years ago, Joe Garrison asked me why we never had any form of confession in our worship service. I had never thought of that, simply because we never had “confession” in church where I grew up. But our congregation has a varied heritage among its members. Some of you have been Catholic, Lutheran, Episcopalian, Presbyterian, all of whom normally have a time of confession in worship.
So, thanks to Joe, I started putting a Prayer of Confession in our service before Communion. Now, because some of you, like myself, are not from those traditions, we have times without a Confession, but rather a meditation which I give on the nature of Communion. Psalm 32 makes real clear the importance of confession, to be honest with God about who we are and who we know him to be. Next month we’ll move into the time of Meditation for a while, but Confession will return, and we will, as the Psalmist says, “Be glad in the Lord, and rejoice, O righteous; and shout for joy, all you upright in heart.”
Sermon, 8/23/30, I Kings 21:1-19
The Collect for Purity that begins, “Almighty God, unto whom all hearts are open, all desires known, and from whom no secrets are hid…” is found in many Catholic and Protestant prayer books, and appears to be at least 1,000 years old, found in Latin in a prayer book from the town of Fulda, in Germany. There is much that could be said about Fulda and its role in the kingdom of Charlemagne and his predecessors and successors, and also its role in the 20th century Cold War, being located in the militarily significant “Fulda Gap,” the path of an anticipated but never undertaken tank invasion of West Germany by the Soviet Union, but I want to call your attention back to the prayer found in the Fulda Sacramentary: Almighty God, unto whom all hearts are open…and from whom no secrets are hid.”
You can hear the story of Santa Claus in those words, can you not?
“He sees you when you're sleeping
He knows when you're awake
He knows if you've been bad or good
So be good for goodness sake!”
Our myths around St. Nicholas have taken on some of the attributes of God, unfortunately, in the sense that we use that idea to scare our children into behaving, at least from around October till Christmas. I didn’t worry about Santa Claus because I knew my grandmother already knew everything and saw everything and could read the evil hearts of young boys who had little sisters she had to protect.
This is of course why my brother and I dug a trap for her in the backyard under the clothesline. We were just tired of the old lady ratting us out on every single good idea for mischief we came up with.
My granddaughter Elizabeth was captured on phone video recently by my daughter when she snuck off to the laundry room to yank clothes out of the front-loading dryer and try to climb inside. Never quite made it, of course.
The collect for purity is an acknowledgment in prayer of God’s omniscience, and a prayer for his cleansing, “Cleanse our hearts by the inspiration of your Holy Spirit, that we may perfectly love you, and worthily magnify your holy name; through Christ our Lord. Amen”
And this is illustrated for us in the story of Ahab the king and his queen, Jezebel, evocative name even today, and Naboth, the owner of a vineyard. Many things lead to this travesty of justice we have heard read this morning, but certainly one thing, is proximity. This is often the case.
You don’t want to be in the way of, or even too near, rapacious power, or those who seek it. You don’t want to come between them and what they desire, like Susette Kelo in New London Connecticut, whose home was unjustly seized by the city government to transfer to a private company, along with many other home properties, for redevelopment into a hotel-retail-condo-research center for Pfizer Pharmaceuticals. The constitution allows governments to “take” private property only for “public use” with “just compensation.” This is known as eminent domain.
But the redevelopment was for entirely private purposes. The city government would own nothing, except the exciting new tax revenue they dreamed about coming from all those new jobs. In a disgraceful decision, certainly not the first nor the last, the Supreme Court of the United States of America in a 5-4 decision supported New London against citizen Susette Kelo and several Homeowners who had joined her lawsuit.
Susette Kelo lost her home as did many others, but the developer lost interest when Pfizer decided to merge with Wyeth Drugs and moved its research campus to Groton CT, and 1,000 jobs left New London as a result.
When King Henry VIII wanted something, he merely let it be known what he wanted and people normally complied, except Thomas More, of course, Cardinal Wolsey’s successor as Lord High Chancellor of England. Cardinal Wolsey built a grand new palace for himself, Hampton Court, and it was so attractive and appealing and conveniently located on the Thames River, that it caught Henry’s eye, and Wolsey finally “gave” it to Henry, to try, unsuccessfully, to save his own position, and maybe his own neck. Odd that Hampton Court is on the Thames, just like New London CT is on a Thames River, across from Groton where Pfizer decided to move instead.
Ahab wanted. He wanted a vegetable garden near the palace. Maybe he liked to stroll in the garden in the cool of the evening and pick his own, perhaps the cucumbers, melons, leeks, onions and garlic of Egypt, like the Hebrews lusted after in the wilderness.
Ahab wanted. Ahab coveted. Naboth had a vineyard near the palace and it was convenient, and fertile, and Ahab saw it, and he desired it. David saw Bathsheba, and he wanted her, and he got her, at the cost of her husband’s life. But Ahab, even in his covetousness, is a king of Israel, and not a baal worshiper like his queen. Ahab wants a garden close to the palace, and he wants it badly.
And so he offers to buy it from Naboth. He makes him an offer he can’t refuse. He is the king, after all. But Naboth refuses it. Naboth invokes the sacred name of the God whom they both claim to serve. “The Lord forbid that I should give you the land of my ancestors.”
Our ears should perk up here. The LORD. The Land. The ancestors. “The LORD forbid that I should give you the land of my ancestors.” Naboth refuses to cave to the King because of Resurrection. Because of Eternal life. For that’s what this was all about. The name of the LORD is the first key, for why bring him up over a simple land transaction? Maybe the price is too low, but for that you bring God into this? The Lord forbid?
Some of the laws of Moses were given to the people to prevent what is referred to today as the problem of wealth inequality. Every tribe, clan and family had land allotted to them when they came into the Promised Land. The land was something from which a Hebrew should not be alienated, for their “father” as they confessed in Deuteronomy 26, was a “wandering Aramean.” Abraham, when Sarah died, had not so much as a plot of dirt in which to bury her. He had to buy a piece of land from the Hittites. Abraham was a nomad.
The Lord forbid that I should give you the land of my ancestors! The Lord forbid that I should violate the covenant, that I should forget his promise, that I should abandon my forebears! It’s hard to figure out how this worked historically, but the idea in Leviticus is that one could only lease out property for a maximum of 49 years, or less, until the next Jubilee year, when all property would revert to the original owner.
And beyond the land, was the notion of the ancestors. Jewish ancestral piety is based on the promise of God, the notion of the bosom of Abraham. As Nathan described the love Uriah had for his wife that David had stolen, “but the poor man had nothing but one little ewe lamb, which he had bought. He brought it up, and it grew up with him and with his children; it used to eat of his meager fare, and drink from his cup, and lie in his bosom, and it was like a daughter to him.”
To lie in the bosom was to sit closest to the host, or perhaps the guest of honor of a banquet, like the apostle John, leaning on the bosom of Jesus at the Last Supper.
God, as Jesus said, is not God of the dead, but of the living. This was not a new concept to Jews of his day. Their memory of their ancestors tied them to God’s promise of the land, which was the way the promise of Resurrection was seen in the misty, early vision of the Hebrew writers of Scripture. This is why and how they remembered all those named. You know all those genealogies?
“And Jared lived after he begat Enoch eight hundred years, and begat sons and daughters:20 And all the days of Jared were nine hundred sixty and two years: and he died.”
Who cares about all those names? They did. In today’s world we float like flotsam on the sea after the wreckage of the faith. Today we often don’t know who our great-grandparents are, some couldn’t tell you their grandparent’s names, and some families in our world have lost any connection to a father, or a father’s father.
The ancient Hebrews held on tightly to their place in God’s creation. They trusted God and his promise. Naboth trusted God, and perhaps even Ahab had a fear of God, but Jezebel certainly did not.
The refusal of Naboth to sell is so upsetting to poor Ahab he takes to his bed and is off his feed. When Jezebel questions him, he tells her Naboth won’t sell him the vineyard.
Jezebel, astonished that she had married such a spineless whiner, says, “Pshh, is that all? I will give you the vineyard of Naboth. No charge.”
Ahab gets what he wants and maintains his plausible deniability at the same time. Jezebel is able to orchestrate the extra-judicial murder of Naboth because everyone else is afraid not to go along with her plan because they each know they could be the next Naboth. Nice little business you got here. Shame if something happened to it. What a pretty family.
Verses 8-14 of our lesson tell us just how Jezebel suborned perjury by government officials, the elders and nobles of Jezreel, i.e., the deep state of the time. She essentially organized Naboth’s lynching. Why? Because she could.
Like those in Malachi who think God does not see, “Where is the God of Justice?” they asked. And in Psalm 94: “They pour out their arrogant words;
all the evildoers boast.5 They crush your people, O Lord, and afflict your heritage.6 They kill the widow and the stranger, they murder the orphan,7 and they say, “The Lord does not see; the God of Jacob does not perceive.”
Almighty God, unto whom all hearts are open: Jeremiah tells us “I the Lord test the mind and search the heart,” and the Psalmist says in Ps 44: “If we had forgotten the name of our God, or spread out our hands to a strange god,21 would not God discover this? For he knows the secrets of the heart.”
And, one more, as the Lord says to Samuel in I Samuel 16, “the Lord sees not as man sees; man looks on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.”
How many times did I hear my grandmother say, “Be sure your sins will find you out?” As a kid I just thought that was something old people said, because she was certainly always on our case no matter what it was. She even seemed to know what we were planning to do. How did she do that?
I came across the saying years later in the book of Number 32:23: “Be sure your sins will find you out.” I’d heard her say that so often it was almost like learning that the Bible was quoting my grandmother!
Moses is warning the tribes of Reuben and Gad, who wanted to stay in Gilead on the east side of the Jordan river, that they were not to focus on building their own houses and flocks and families to the detriment and loss of their responsibility to the other tribes on the west side of the river. There was a social covenant within and among the people of God at that time. To ignore that responsibility for others of Jacob’s descendants was to violate the law in Leviticus 19: ‘Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against anyone among your people, but love your neighbor as yourself. I am the Lord.”
On this occasion in I Kings, the Lord calls his prophet to confront not Jezebel, but Ahab. Jezebel, Ahab’s queen consort, was a Sidonian, not a Hebrew, and a Baal worshiper, an idolater. I Kings 16 tells us, “Ahab not only considered it trivial to commit the sins of Jeroboam son of Nebat, but he also married Jezebel daughter of Ethbaal king of the Sidonians, and began to serve Baal and worship him.”
The writer tells us what will happen to Ahab in 21:19, and it comes to pass in 22:38: “So the king died (he had been killed in battle in his chariot) and was brought to Samaria, and they buried him there. 38 They washed the chariot at a pool in Samaria (where the prostitutes bathed),[b] and the dogs licked up his blood, as the word of the Lord had declared.”
Jezebel seems forgotten. Have her sins not found her out? But the Word of the Lord accomplishes its purposes: 2 Kings 9 tells us how her own servants threw her out of an upper window when Jehu said, “Who is on my side?”
Trampled to death by the horses of his army, when Jehu later sent servants to find her body and bury her, for she was the daughter of a king, Jehu said, they reported back to him that there was nothing left but her skull and feet and hands, as 21:23 had said: “And also concerning Jezebel the Lord says: ‘Dogs will devour Jezebel by the wall of[b]
All for a vegetable garden. A few leeks and onions, maybe. There is a God. He is the Lord. He sees all. He hears all. “Nothing is covered up that will not be revealed, or hidden that will not be known. 3 Therefore whatever you have said in the dark shall be heard in the light, and what you have whispered in private rooms shall be proclaimed upon the housetops.” The Lord does not forget… “and from whom no secrets are hid.”
A useful question to sometimes ask is why is this passage here? Why is it in the Bible and why is it where it is? What are God’s intentions with this text, for me, for today, for others, what was the writer or editor thinking?
For some of us think to ourselves, “Do we really need to know about the dogs licking up Ahab’s blood? Or Jezebel getting defenestrated?
And why hear about Ahab at all? Ahab is, or was, a part of the consciousness of the West. It is no accident that the Bible-haunted Herman Melville, author of Moby Dick, named his evil captain Ahab, and his wandering sailor Ishmael. And who does Ishmael encounter before the sailing of the whale ship, but a strange man on the shore named Elijah, who warns him of Captain Ahab.
Ahab looms large in our memory, but what about King Zimri? Or his father King Omri? Historians and archaeologists assert that Omri was more powerful and effective as a King than Ahab was. We even learn that Omri did what was evil in the sight of the Lord, certainly like Ahab in that sense.
But Ahab brought idolatry to the fore. He allowed Jezebel to bring baals into the kingdom. We like to think of idolatry as a victimless crime. Who can it hurt? Like the way some used to and even still today say, the victimless crime of smoking marijuana, or the victimless crime of prostitution. Some imagine that is a simple transaction, the man gets what he wants, the prostitute gets paid, where is the harm? A victimless crime.
The nonsensical notion that prostitution has no victims is a hellish lie, just like the idea that idolatry has no victims. For greed and covetousness are idolatry, as Paul says in Ephesians 5: “Be sure of this, that no fornicator or impure man, or one who is covetous (that is, an idolater), has any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and of God.” And again in Colossians 3: “Put to death therefore what is earthly in you: fornication, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry.”
Idolatry as greed or covetousness helps us to see this whole chapter of I Kings as a meditation on idolatry, on any behavior or system of government that puts anything before God.
The supposed religious neutrality of our country’s founding is coming back to bite us in recent years, for it’s false to say that it doesn’t matter what your faith is, it doesn’t matter what your religion is, it doesn’t matter what you believe in your heart, all that has nothing to do with the kind of person you become. This is to class religion as some kind of stamp-collecting, model train building hobby. And it’s not true, as many of the Founders certainly knew and understood.
We’re accustomed to reminding ourselves that our nation is founded on a “government of laws, not of men.” Made famous by John Adams, 2nd President, it is a part of the Massachusetts 1780 Constitution, drafted by John Adams.
But here’s the problem. The law has to be enforced by men. The law has to be understood by men, and taught by men. The idea was to avoid government playing favorites, changing the rules as they went along, like playing Monopoly with my older brother before I was old enough to read the rules.
A government of laws not men should mean equal enforcement because those in charge follow the law, and obey the law, without fear or favor, without slanting the law one way or another, without political interference in who is prosecuted and who is not. Laws not men.
As a country we have relied on procedure, and forgotten that the men who wrote those constitutions and laws of long ago were a different breed of men than we find all around us today. A government of laws not men is pointless and powerless if the law is mute and helpless, if, as a prophet said long ago, the law does not live in the heart of each and every man and woman, for if the law is not revered and respected by every man woman and child, there is no society that can survive the chaos that will ensue.
Naboth is our name. There is always a Jezebel, always an Ahab around the corner, or on the horizon. But the Lord says, “I have heard the cry of my people. And behold, the Lord’s arm is not shortened, that it cannot save; nor His ear heavy, that it cannot hear.”
Sermon on Luke 7:18-35 Sunday, August 16th
Would it bother you if I said that John the Baptist bothers me? In this passage from Luke we read that John has sent two of his disciples to Jesus after it was reported to John that Jesus had healed the servant of the Roman Centurion, raised the widow’s son from the dead, and that many were saying about Jesus, “A great prophet has arisen among us.”
The disciples of John told him about all these things we hear in vs 18, and so John sent two of his disciples to ask Jesus a question: “Are you he who is to come, or shall we look for another?”
Now that’s a very carefully worded question. He doesn’t ask, “Are you the Messiah? Are you the Christ, as we would say? For both words, in Hebrew and in Greek, mean anointed one. Which means “person marked out by special rite or ceremony for a specific divinely ordained purpose.” Aromatic oils, made from olive oil and other ingredients, like myrrh would be used to mark the forehead.
The Kings of Israel were anointed, the priests were anointed. The prophet Samuel anointed the first King, Saul, who at first protested, saying he was from Benjamin, the smallest tribe, and the poorest family of the tribe.
Anointed is a word sometimes used in other contexts. We’re familiar with that. Sometime Journalists say so and so has been anointed to be his or her party’s standard-bearer, combining religious and military metaphors.
For whatever reason, John is not coming right out and asking if he’s the Messiah. But the expectation among many was that there was an “anointed one” who was coming. People had different ideas about what this “one who was to come” would do, but John had said, in Luke 3: “I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with[e] the Holy Spirit and fire. 17 His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”
There was a judgment coming for which John was telling his hearers and disciples to prepare. “Repent, be washed of your sins. He comes to gather his harvest, the wheat into the storehouse, but the chaff to be cast into the furnace.”
Others expected the “one who is to come” to immediately lead Judah in a military revolt, and defeat the Romans and their collaborators, as the Lord had done of old, in the days of Moses and Joshua, Gideon and David. The Arm of the Lord! The sword of the Lord and Gideon!
John hears of healings, of Gentiles, and resurrections of unknown young men…maybe he’s puzzled. “Are you the one?” he asks. Politely as possible, it must be said. Should we look for another? You and I might think, how can they not know? How do they not recognize him?
But Jesus doesn’t fit the pattern for which John and others were watching. For notice Jesus’ answer to the question of John? “Go and 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, the poor have good news brought to them. 23 And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.”
Jesus is carrying out the program he had already announced back at the synagogue in Capernaum. Local boy makes good, asked to speak in synagogue. He read from Isaiah 61, and Luke indicates he focused on vss 1 and 2: “The spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners; 2 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor, and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all who mourn.”
There are plenty of others like it in Isaiah: 58:6: “Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke?
And Isaiah 35: Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened,
and the ears of the deaf unstopped;
6 then the lame shall leap like a deer,
and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy.
And one more, in Isaiah 29: “On that day the deaf shall hear
the words of a scroll,
and out of their gloom and darkness
the eyes of the blind shall see.
19 The meek shall obtain fresh joy in the Lord,
and the neediest people shall exult in the Holy One of Israel.
20 For the tyrant shall be no more,
and the scoffer shall cease to be;
all those alert to do evil shall be cut off—
21 those who cause a person to lose a lawsuit,
who set a trap for the arbiter in the gate,
and without grounds deny justice to the one in the right.
You can see what they all have in common: Human evil: “The tyrant shall be no more,” and what we might call natural evil: “the eyes of the blind shall see.” Isaiah, and Jesus, connect the reign, the rule, of the Lord, with the end of sickness, oppression and death. You can see the kind of things that evil people did 2500 years ago: payoffs in lawsuits, the corruption of the legal system.
I would also be interested to read some sort of medical-archaeological investigation into the ailments of ancient Israel. Plenty of people died prematurely from contagious diseases, colds, flu, pneumonia, diphtheria, measles, smallpox and other fevers, all kinds of things could kill in a world without anti-biotics or other medicines and no modern plumbing and sanitation practices.
There was not so much cancer, and diabetes, and heart disease back then, which believe it or not are the ailments of history’s winners. The diseases of the rich and prosperous, which come long after children and grandchildren are born. But in ancient Israel, those who dodged death from contagion nevertheless seem unusually plagued by deafness, blindness, mobility issues, the Bible category of the lame, and problems with infertility.
All of which may have connections to the effects of extreme fever, whether with adults, children, or babies in the womb, like the man born blind, in John 9.
But the passages from Isaiah were connected to the promise of return from exile, the promises of God restoring his people to his favor, the promise of God to come and be their king, to establish Zion, Jerusalem, as his throne, from which the Lord would rule the world.
The lion would lie down with the lamb. All people shall see the glory of God. Make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be exalted, and every mountain and hill made low. He will feed his flock like a shepherd, he will father the lambs in his arms, and gently lead those that are with young.
This, all of this, is in Jesus’ answer to John, “the blind receive their sight. This is how this type of allusion works. Jesus quotes a verse and the whole panoply of its history and broader associations are also heard and intended.
And the claim that goes with this assertion is astounding, for Jesus associates himself, he identifies himself with the words spoken by Isaiah in the specifically messianic poems in the prophet. In ch. 40: “ To whom then will you compare me,
that I should be like him? says the Holy One.
26 Lift up your eyes on high and see:
who created these?
He who brings out their host by number,
calling them all by name;
by the greatness of his might,
and because he is strong in power
not one is missing.
28 Have you not known? Have you not heard?
The Lord is the everlasting God,
the Creator of the ends of the earth.
He does not faint or grow weary,
his understanding is unsearchable.
29 He gives power to the faint,
and to him who has no might he increases strength.
This is what it means when Jesus finishes his response to John with verse 23, It’s almost like a postscript, when Jesus says: “And blessed is he who takes no offense at me.”
You know that old joke about the longtime prisoners who have told the same jokes so often that all they have to do is call out #23, and everybody laughs! Or, #15. Everybody laughs. The new guy on the block decides he’ll get in on the fun and calls out: “#17!” Silence.
Finally the oldest guy says, “Some people just don’t know to tell a joke.”
Jesus, and John, and many others, knew the scriptures backwards and forward….and sideways. What else were they gonna do. No TV, no internet, no books, no Kindle. They had the scriptures, which they read, or heard read, over and over again. And because they believed that God spoke through this word, they looked hard for the connections from book to book and prophet to prophet.
They looked so hard they could connect up vast amounts of meaning and significance with a single reference, a sentence, a phrase, that took in and conveyed to the hearer whole schools of thought and interpretation.
Are you he is to come? What is John asking here, besides the obvious? Listen to this from Psalm 118:26: “Blessed be he who comes in the name of the Lord! We bless you from the house of the Lord. The Lord is God, and he has given us light.”
John says, are you this one? Are you the one, the Blessed one, who comes in the name of the Lord?
And Jesus responds, “Blessed is he who takes no office in me.” Jesus says, what you read in that royal Psalm 118 applies to me, speaks of me. I am the blessed one. I am he who comes in, and with the name of the Lord.
And with Jesus’ answer and Luke’s connection of the stories of John and Jesus, we learn just from this interchange what is the message of the Kingdom of God. It is a message of healing and life, it is a message of justice and righteousness, it is a message of hope that conquers the age old efforts of some groups to wreak righteousness on others, of some groups to wrest retribution out of history by means of violence, and force justice on the descendants of malefactors.
What do we see here in this exchange? It’s no accident that the Lord whom John knew, knows John’s name and his role:
“What then did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. 27 This is he of whom it is written, ‘Behold, I send my messenger before thy face, who shall prepare thy way before thee.’
28 I tell you, among those born of women none is greater than John; yet he who is least in the kingdom of God is greater than he.”
And this is why John the Baptist bothers me. Did you know both John and Jesus came preaching Repent, for the Kingdom of God is at hand? They both called the Pharisees, quote, “A brood of vipers?” They both said that every tree that does not bear fruit shall be cut down, they both were considered by everyone to be a prophet, and they both were nonetheless rejected by their hearers. They were both seized and bound by the Roman guards. Herod grieved at John’s death, and Pilate was reluctant to sentence Jesus to death. And both John and Jesus were buried by one or more of their disciples.
The gospel writers, especially Matthew, go to great lengths to develop and highlight these parallels, sometimes even going so far as to use the same exact wording in talking about John and then Jesus.
And one says to the other, are you the one who is to come? He then dies for following that one, who also dies, but for the sins of the whole world.
John bothers me in that his life so closely follows and parallels that of Jesus, and mine does not.
Does that make sense to you? Of course, though John was the greatest man in history, the least in the kingdom of heaven, Jesus says, in a puzzling formulation, is greater than John.
But greater, perhaps, only in what we have received. Not our wealth, not our comfort, not the prospect of long life in this world, even though global life expectancy has grown on average from less than 40 years 200 years ago, to 73 years today, around the world. An unprecedented change, most of which has happened since 1950.
The least in the kingdom of is greater than John because of what we have received, what we have, and what we know. For to live is Christ, and to die is gain. That’s the best deal ever, and that knowledge is our anchor, our life, our salvation.
As the apostle John says, “Beloved, let us love one another; for love is of God, and he who loves is born of God and knows God. 8 He who does not love does not know God; for God is love. 9 In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him. 10 In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the expiation for our sins. 11 Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. 12 No man has ever seen God; if we love one another, God abides in us and his love is perfected in us.”
Sermon, Galatians 1:11-24, August 9, 2020
It’s well known that the zeal Paul refers to in v. 14 continues to drive him in his ministry. “I advanced in Judaism beyond many among my people of the same age, for I was far more zealous for the traditions of my ancestors.” He is clear in v. 13 that he persecuted the church of God violently and tried to destroy it. “I was violently persecuting the church of God and was trying to destroy it.” When God revealed his Son Jesus Christ, Paul did a complete 180 and began to persecute Judaism instead.
Actually, I’m just checking to see if you’re listening. Because of course that’s not what Paul did. He didn’t turn around from persecuting the church and begin to persecute the synagogue. He did the opposite naturally, because of the nature of the revelation given to him.
There are three important things to note in this second half of chapter 1 in Galatians. First is the relationship and sometimes conflict between revelation and tradition. Second is the fact that zeal must be tempered, or formed and informed by its object and inspiration. And third is the nature of Paul’s turnaround, the reversal Paul underwent when confronted by God’s revelation.
Let’s look at the second point first. In the church many have long talked about Paul’s conversion from Judaism to Christianity. For a long time, partly because that was the way commentators described it, that was the only way we had to think about it. We think in words and concepts that we are given, and it’s only repeated and continued engagement with hard and contradictory notions, which may or may not be right in themselves, that can lead us to new insight.
That’s why the cancel culture of modern-day academia, politics and social media are so stultifying and destructive to progress in understanding. Jordan Peterson wisely said “I don’t know what I think until I can formulate it in a way my listeners can understand and challenge. I don’t know what I think until I say it.”
So the notion of saying Paul did not convert from Judaism to Christianity relies on at least two insights. First, Judaism, the word itself, is only used in the NT in this passage. It seems to mean both more and less than what we might think. More because it seems to be connected to Paul’s use of the highly charged word “Zealous” or zeal. Less because it’s not really categorical name for a religion, since “religion” is a relatively modern concept, an invention of the world in secular can be seen to be the opposite of religious.
Zeal was associated with Phinehas, Moses’ brother Aaron’s grandson, who stopped the progress of God’s wrath through the camp of the Israelites by killing with his spear the Baal worship Hebrew man and his Midianite wife in their tent.
Zeal was associated with Elijah, who slew the prophets of Baal on the summit of Mt. Carmel in I Kings 18, concurrent with the law in Deuteronomy 13, that prophets of false gods were to be put to death.
Paul speaks of being zealous for the traditions of my ancestors. This means more than just being extra devout, always observing the sabbath, eating no shrimp or bacon or cheeseburgers. Paul put his zeal into action with force and violence. This is why he was the one in charge of the stoning of Stephen. This is why he uses the word here and in Phillipians3:6, “As to Zeal, I was a persecutor of the church.”
This word was used in Jewish circles to describe a form of elevated, active, can we say, fanatical devotion to the Lord. It had specific content, and, along with its use by writers in the apocrypha to refer to zealous violence of the Maccabean patriots against the Greek persecutions, it came to eventually denominate those who wanted to overthrow the Romans with violence, though we have no evidence that Paul belonged to that particular group.
What we have is Paul’s rehearsal of a story, a narrative in very compressed language in verse 15: “but when God, who had set me apart before I was born and called me through his grace, was pleased to reveal his Son to me, in order that I might preach him among the Gentiles….”
It is the content of the revelation that makes the difference. Paul says God revealed his Son to him. So the content of that revelation is what makes the difference. Paul is not only not describing a religious conversion, he is bringing into the center of the discussion the new way of the cross. He’s helping us to see how his zeal is transformed from violence toward others to service of others.
Previously, Paul was serving God, as he saw it, by zealously persecuting the church. God, in his revelation to Paul says, No, not that way. This is how you serve me.
What Paul and all followers of Jesus are called to is contained in the content of the passion story of Christ. God’s plan for a rebellious world is found in the story of a sinless man who is crucified for the sins of the world. The Pagan Romans, the self-righteous Sanhedrin, how does God deal with them? Not violence, but by giving his Son to die for them.
We first see this way back in Genesis in the story of Abraham. It’s inserted into the DNA of Israel from the beginning. Abraham is called by God to sacrifice his son, his only son, the son whom he loves. The story in Genesis 22 is called the Akedah in modern Rabbinic commentary. It is now so central to their self-understanding the passage itself has its own name.
The story of the sacrificial Son, as revealed to Paul by God himself changes the nature of zeal. It reverses the direction of the zeal. It changes how Paul operates, because he is no longer the persecutor, but, as we read in 2 Corinthians 11, he has become the persecuted. “Five times I have received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one. 25 Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I received a stoning.”
But as Peter reminds us in his first letter, the story of the sacrificial Son changes the behavior of his followers. “When he was abused, he did not return abuse; when he suffered, he did not threaten; but he entrusted himself to the one who judges justly. 24 He himself bore our sins in his body on the cross,[h] so that, free from sins, we might live for righteousness.”
Third point is merely to reiterate that Paul’s story is in essence the story of Jesus. He is not emphasizing here in Galatians “what Jesus did for me, how he met my needs,” which is not the way they thought back then. No, the story he tells is of a world turned upside down, a persecutor turned into an apostle, a zealot become the servant of all. In 2 Corinthians again we read, “Three times I was shipwrecked; for a night and a day I was adrift at sea; 26 on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from bandits, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers and sisters;[e] 27 in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, hungry and thirsty, often without food, cold and naked. 28 And, besides other things, I am under daily pressure because of my anxiety for all the churches. 29 Who is weak, and I am not weak? Who is made to stumble, and I am not indignant?”
Paul the persecutor has become more like a nursing mother with an infant child. As he says in I Thessalonians 2, “ But we were gentle[c] among you, like a nursing mother taking care of her own children. 8 So, being affectionately desirous of you, we were ready to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own selves, because you had become very dear to us.”
The change is that Paul is no longer following his imagined idea of what it means to be zealous, but following the steps of the one described again in I Peter 2 “But if you endure when you do right and suffer for it, you have God’s approval. 21 For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you should follow in his steps.”
Paul is so tightly identified with his Lord he can say things like in Galatians 6, “I bear in my body the marks of Jesus.” Which I assume means the scars from all those beatings he listed in 2 Corinthians. Paul basically no longer operates with an agenda when we meet him in his letters, but with a directive. A command. A commission. He’s been plucked up, turned around, and given a new direction.
Finally, the first point I mentioned, is the tension between Revelation and Tradition. Paul instructs these confused Galatians that he had received no directions or instructions from other men, even the other apostles. What he preached had been revealed to him by God. The Galatians must not follow anyone who deviates from what Paul has proclaimed to them. “For I want you to know, brothers and sisters,[d] that the gospel that was proclaimed by me is not of human origin; 12 for I did not receive it from a human source, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ.”
But you and me. It’s a little different, isn’t it? I have received the Good news, at second hand, let’s say. I saw no visions, heard no voices. The very word, “tradition” is based on the Latin word for handing on, handing over, like in a relay race, when the baton is handed on to the next runner in the relay.
Preachers, of much training, and no training, are sometimes tempted to think we can relay to our hearers the divine revelation God has given us directly. And yes, all should listen to the Spirit of God, but all should also humble themselves under the yoke of tradition, to learn how others wiser, and with a different perspective perhaps, see the truth of God.
It is indeed ironic that our tradition is the revelation given to Paul, who says he was not “traditioned,” but given, handed, a revelation directly from God. I usually run pretty fast from characters who make that kind of claim.
The Bible itself which we believe and understand to be the Word of God is the product also of tradition, for it was not let down from Heaven on a golden rope, but came together slowly under the guidance of the Holy Spirit and the practices of the synagogue and the church.
Our tradition is to trust the Revelation given to Paul, and the other apostles. This is why it is an abuse of this text from Galatians to think of it as some sort of proof text for the rights of the individual conscience that stands against the forces of controlling orthodoxy. There is not a dichotomy, not necessarily a conflict here between the individual and the tradition per se, as Richard Hays says, but between the Good News God has revealed, and the human traditions arrayed against it that Paul struggled with.
Do our traditions help, or hinder others hearing and understanding the gospel? That’s the question not to forget. We mustn’t think that Paul is some sort of advocate for “The Church of What’s Happenin’ Now.” He is not the apostle of let’s all get along no matter what, the messenger of You do Your Thing and I’ll do Mine, and if we meet, it’s Beautiful.”
Paul doesn’t have a position from which he negotiates. He meets no one halfway on the truth of the gospel. Our challenge is to realize we’re not Paul, but that we need to understand and live his message.
Even if I can’t say, I’m never wrong. Even if I can’t say, No one knows the gospel like I do. That’s not for us. What we can all say is, “We would see Jesus.” We seek to know Jesus, and to make him know to others.
I can say, I will always seek to live under the guidance and direction of the Word of God, seeking him out, and finding that he is seeking me. For the Word of God is living and active, as the book of Hebrews describes him, discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart.
Sermon Psalm 30 Sunday, August 2nd
The idea of Jesus of Nazareth as the Word of God, the communication of Deity, the content, the reason, the rationality of the divine in the world, first came to me in my hearing of the first chapter of the Gospel of John. In the beginning was the Word.
I can recall a trip with our Explorer Scouts Post to the Appalachian Trail the week after Christmas, in 1971, for it was in that year my thoughts began to turn more seriously toward God.
I don’t remember the name of the lodge we stayed at, but we had given up trying to hike, because the trail was entirely frozen over. It had snowed and thawed a few times and the part of the trail we were attempting was simply a diagonal sideways sheet of ice that was impossible to hike.
Dad somehow got us, a dozen or so teenage boys, a lodge to stay in, beside some river in a state park. It was quite cold for all of us Florida boys, and we stayed inside the lodge most of the time, near the fireplace.
I mention all this because it’s where and when I remember first noticing the oddness of the first chapter of the Gospel of John. And I noticed because, in my new found religious devotion, I had decided to rewrite the Bible.
Not in any sort of Thomas Jefferson sense, picking and choosing what I liked and didn’t like, but simply by copying the text of the whole Bible. I get these big ideas. I had brought a Bible and a notebook to write in. Of course, with my handwriting, no one else would ever be able to read what I had written, but it was the doing of it, the taking in of scripture through the eyes and passing it back to the page through the muscles of the body. I didn’t know at the time, but that’s a very good way to impress on your mind what you’re reading; to copy it out by hand.
I started with the Gospel of John, I don’t know why, unless it was the notion of those initial verses that caught my attention. “In the beginning. Seemed like a great place to start. In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God; and the Word was God.
This tells us a lot about God, and ourselves. The Word. There is perhaps a holiness connected to this fundamental aspect of humanness. Communication, communion, think of all the things that one does and accomplishes through words.
We listen to our children, waiting and watching for those first words, when they learn to speak, a confirmation that a signal is getting through. The mother that speaks and sings to the child, in the womb, in the crib, while nursing, while walking, reading to the child when he or she just wants to chew on the book, long before the child can talk back, this is the foundation of so much of our learning for the rest of our lives.
You see, Humanity is not an innately reasonable entity. It’s passed on. We become acculturated by those who raise us, those around us, those we’re taught to respect and revere. Even if an infant did not have to be fed and protected for many years, it’s the growth of those connections that make us human in the ways that allow families, cities and civilizations to grow and develop in ways that provide for truly human flourishing.
This is why things like loneliness are so painful. Social isolation. The child born with a facial disfigurement endures a great deal of emotional pain from those who turn away. Why is solitary confinement in prison an additional punishment? It’s painful.
This is why God gives us families, clans, tribes, neighborhoods. This is why it can make sense for a person who walked on this earth to be called, as in John 1:1, the Word of God.
God chose the most basic, distinguishing aspect of humanity with which to speak to us. And we have this diverse, variable, shimmering tapestry of beauty known as the scriptures for our birthright. Abraham didn’t. He had no Bible. Nor Moses, nor David.
In the mysteries of the power of the Holy Spirit God used those men and others to speak to us today. My great great great great grandfather was born only 262 years ago. How many generations back are those who first read the gospel of John, or a letter of the apostle Paul, perhaps not even knowing what they were holding?
And how far back, when someone first sang, or spoke, “O Lord my God, I cried out to you for help, and you have healed me,” like the writer of Psalm 30? Ellen Charry, a commentary writer, says some earlier commentators associate this Psalm with the recovery from illness of Hezekiah, narrated in 2 Kings 20. Others with the destruction of Haman and the reprieve for the Jews in the time of Esther in the Persian kingdom.
Calvin reads Psalm 30 spiritually and sees the remorse expressed as David’s anguish over his sin with Bathsheba. Different writers have seen the rescue God provides as rescue from illness, or sin, or even death itself.
However we situate its possible original setting, we mustn’t neglect its current setting, which is just as real, just as important, just as relevant for the interpretation of this Psalm and every scripture.
What does that mean, its current setting? Well, it means, for one thing, that history is not just that which is dusty, dead and gone, seen only in the dim light of our metaphorical rear-view mirror. History is not just that which we must dig up from the buried past, translate, and put into some sort of relevant modern-day dress. History is where we are, and the Word of God is with us all the time. The Word of God is not limited because it was first spoken by a Jew on the other side of the world 2,500 years ago.
Whether it’s Hezekiah, or Esther, or David that’s the original speaker or setting for this Psalm, one thing is certain: you and I are now the setting. You and I are now making history. You and I now must call on the Lord in the long hours of weeping, for truly his joy does come in the morning.
You see, here we are, getting older by the minute, my life is shorter now than when I woke up this morning, as is yours, but you and I are here as newborn eternal beings, by virtue of being in the body of Christ.
Listen to that last verse and hear the utter facticity of what it says. It is no exaggeration. It is not preacher talk. It’s a simple fact. “O Lord my God, I will give thanks to you forever.”
Forever. That’s what awaits you. And if you’ve ever thought about eternity very hard, you’ve probably started to worry. Not whether or not you will be there, though perhaps that has worried you. Rather what are we going to do there, FOREVER? Will there be Netflix? Can I take my Kindle? We think Eternity’s a long time, but it’s not. It’s not time at all. You know how time flies when you’re having fun? You ever notice that when you’re the busiest, the day just flies by?
Eternity is like nothing we’ve ever known. How would we? “Eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, neither have entered into the heart of man, the things which God hath prepared for them that love him.”
Psalm 30 tells us the truth and transcends time and the past. William Faulkner spoke truly when he said, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”
It keeps speaking, it keeps pushing the present into the future, just like this Psalm has now been spoken into your heart. Today.
You see,m the way to read this Psalm, to perform this Psalm, is to hold it up like a mirror. Haven’t you ever cried yourself to sleep? Haven’t you ever thought, like in verse 6, “As for me, I said in my prosperity, ‘I shall never be moved.’”
Cast your mind back to February. Oh, those Chinese have got themselves in a pickle again. Another Bird Flu. Another virus. When will they ever learn?
You didn’t think it would affect you, or your family, or your country. I mean, how would that happen?
Most of us think, or have thought in the past, since we’re old enough to have learned by now, that we’ve got it all figured out. We know how to navigate. I don’t have to worry about this, or that. I’ll just keep doing what I’ve been doing. It’s worked so far.
“But then you hid your face, O Lord, and I was overwhelmed. To you, O Lord, I cried, and to the Lord I made supplication. Hear, O Lord, and be gracious to me! O Lord, be thou my helper!”
Ellen Charry takes this psalm apart and puts the verses in an order, beginning with the good times of verse 6, which then leads to the Psalmists crisis, and then to the turn to God, who then hears his prayer, restores him and the Psalmist sings his praises.
She puts it in emotional order, in the way things might have happened. Verse 6 reminds me of Paul’s statement in I Corinthians 10, “Let anyone who thinks he stands take heed lest he fall.” It sounds like a proverb, but I haven’t been able to find it elsewhere.
What it does support is the universality of sin. Let anyone who thinks he stands. We overestimate ourselves, our strength, our virtue. Ellen Charry translates verse 6 as “When life was easy, I said, “Nothing will bother me.”
Psalm 30 is not specific about what went wrong for the Psalmist, for by the time we read this Psalm, by the time it has become “canonical,” a part of the scriptures, it has been universalized. It fits us all whether we have yet seen and experienced its truth.
This is why Soren Kierkegaard, a man much given to depression, talked about despair in a strange way. He said the person who doesn’t experience their own despair, is the only person who truly is in despair. For with Kierkegaard, a profoundly devout Lutheran Danishman of the 19th century, his struggles threw him into the arms of God. He saw the carefree successes of those who took no thought for God and his call, as people living in a dungeon of success.
The heart that is wrung by pain and suffering knows how to love and prize the love of God. The heart that remembers the weeping of the nighttime can comfort those who cannot see or believe that the morning comes, it always does.
For whatever direction this life takes, and whatever life takes away from us, there is one thing that cannot be taken away, the sure and certain hope of resurrection from the grave. “ You have turned my mourning into dancing;
you have taken off my sackcloth and clothed me with joy,
so that my soul may praise you and not be silent.
O Lord my God, I will give thanks to you forever.”
The Psalmist sings the future into your heart. When you know the tune and the singer, the darkness slips away and the morning dawns, and light fills the world.
The believer has something to hold onto. Think of your faith as the rock you’ve built your house on that the storm cannot wash away. Think of your faith as the rock from which the springs of water gush in the desert. Think of your faith as the stone which the world’s builders rejected, but which became the chief cornerstone. Think of your faith as the stone of stumbling, which had you not stumbled upon, you would not have seen it.
7 He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To him who conquers I will give some of the hidden manna, and I will give him a white stone, with a new name written on the stone which no one knows except him who receives it.’
Luke 7:1-10 Sermon Sunday, July 26th
I’ve been trying to think of a contemporary equivalent to the Roman Centurion, especially in terms of how much the population hated them in particular. As divided as this country is politically, it’s hard to settle on possibility that’s not hated by half and loved by half. There are Americans who love Donald Trump and hate him. There are Americans who love Joe Biden and hate him. So that won’t work. It’s like that with a lot of folks. Colin Kaepernick, Tucker Carlson, Rachel Maddow, Drew Brees. Even someone like Anthony Fauci has his army of supporters and detractors.
It’s hard to find someone in our world exactly equivalent to a Roman Centurion in Jesus’ world. I thought maybe a Tax Auditor for the IRS might qualify, a type of person loved only by their family. But even the IRS agent is just trying to do his or her job, trying to earn a living. And where would our country be without income taxes? Well, don’t answer that.
A Roman Centurion was the face of oppression in many of the lands governed or occupied by the Romans for several centuries. Not all regions were occupied by the Army; it depended on their governability. A Centurion might be equivalent to the modern-day rank of a Captain or Major in the US Army. He would be the command officer for 80-200 soldiers, depending on the assignment and the circumstances.
There are probably similarities between the way Iraqis viewed American field officers from 2003 forward. Suffice it to say the representatives of the greater nation that has weapons and power that you don’t have are viewed with suspicion, hostility and hatred. But notice that in this story we have a different circumstance.
The wealth disparity between the Jews of Capernaum and the officers of the Roman Army must have been substantial because v. 5 has the Jewish leaders saying to Jesus “he built us our synagogue.” This Centurion seems to be more along the lines of a “kinder, gentler” sort of occupying Army, putting into practice, with more success, something similar to the generally unsuccessful, Hearts and Minds campaign of the Vietnam War, if you remember that.
It was the local leaders who said to Jesus, ““He is worthy of having you do this for him, 5 for he loves our people, and it is he who built our synagogue for us.” So the Centurion seems to be remarkable in many ways, particularly for the way he stands out in contrast with the bad reputation of other Roman officials.
It’s also important to see the context within Luke, for sometimes we see these chapter designations as hard breaks between topics when they’re not. The very existence of chapter designations in the Bible is only 500 years old, and so not in the original text.
Right after this story of the Centurion is the raising from the dead of the widow’s son in the town of Nain. What’s worth pointing out is the way Luke gives a nod to the knowledgeable reader by saying of Jesus, after the young man was restored to life, “And he gave him to his mother.”
In I Kings 17, during the famine sent by God because of the wickedness of King Ahab and Queen Jezebel, Elijah, at God’s direction, is staying with the widow of Zarephath, whom Jesus referenced in Luke 4 during his very unpopular inaugural sermon.
The widow’s son dies and Elijah stretches himself out on the body three times, cries out to the Lord in anguish and the boy is restored to life.
In Luke, Jesus says to the young man on his way to the cemetery, “Young man, I say to you, Arise.” A simple word of Command. No prayers, no cries of anguish. He does not, as Elisha does in a parallel story in 2 Kings 4, stretch himself out upon the child repeatedly and even seem to give him mouth to mouth resuscitation.
Nothing but: Arise. Jesus speaks, Jesus commands, and Life returns.
It’s interesting that the words of Luke are exactly the same as the words of the narrator in I Kings, when he said, “And he gave him to his mother.” Precisely the same, word for word, letter for letter in the Greek translation of the OT in use at the time, the Septuagint.
Many NT allusions and references are similar, but few are exact copies of the source, like this phrase. It’s like a little flag sticking out, or somebody made a notation in the margin: remember Elijah? Remember Elisha? Look at the differences between their power and that of Jesus. “Arise.”
Jesus spoke as one who had authority. They said that about him in Matthew, at the end of the Sermon on the Mount. And that’s also where this story of the Centurion is placed in Luke’s organization of his gospel, right after that iconic sermon, similar to what Matthew reported in the Sermon on the Mount.
In ch. 6, right before we get to the Centurion, Jesus is asserting his identity by teaching the crowds. In this version of Luke’s, we have the blessings and the woes.
22 “Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you[d] on account of the Son of Man. 23 Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven; for that is what their ancestors did to the prophets.
26 “Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets.
27 “But I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, 28 bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.
You’ve heard something like this before: “37 “Do not judge, and you will not be judged; do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven;”
As well as: 43 “No good tree bears bad fruit, nor again does a bad tree bear good fruit; 44 for each tree is known by its own fruit.”
And finally: “Why do you call me ‘Lord, Lord,’ and do not do what I tell you? 47 I will show you what someone is like who comes to me, hears my words, and acts on them. 48 That one is like a man building a house, who dug deeply and laid the foundation on rock; when a flood arose, the river burst against that house but could not shake it, because it had been well built.[j] 49 But the one who hears and does not act is like a man who built a house on the ground without a foundation. When the river burst against it, immediately it fell, and great was the ruin of that house.”
Who says things like that? Build your very existence, organize your life, on my words, my teaching, my commands. Counselors and psychologists don’t. “Well, I can’t give you advice, of course. That’s a decision you’ll have to make. This is an issue for you to decide.”
Jesus says, Learn of me, for I am meek and lowly. Live like me; everything about your life should follow the pattern I lay down. The nerve. 47 I will show you what someone is like who comes to me, hears my words, and acts on them. 48 That one is like a man building a house, who dug deeply and laid the foundation on rock; when a flood arose, the river burst against that house but could not shake it, because it had been well built.”
And our lesson begins with a reference to that sermon: “After Jesus[a] had finished all his sayings in the hearing of the people, he entered Capernaum.” And in this section we have a, normally, despised Centurion, a slave who is ill, Jewish synagogue elders speaking on behalf and in favor of the Roman oppressor, and Jesus.
All Jesus says in the whole episode, is words of approval for the Centurion. ““I tell you, not even in Israel have I found such faith.” We then read that the Friends of the Centurion, for he and Jesus never meet, find the slave already healed when they return home.
Luke does not even claim that Jesus healed the slave, in so many words. The whole episode of ten verses elevates the Centurion to a role of the faithful man under authority trusting Jesus. He receives, this uncircumcised, pig-eating man of violence, he receives the highest accolade from Jesus. ““I tell you, not even in Israel have I found such faith.”
Clearly, if you read this in context, the point is to focus on the Gentile. The Gentile has faith. Jesus applauds him. Jesus heals his slave. Jesus so approves of this man he compares him favorably to all Israel. All Israel!
There were many episodes in Jesus’ life, says the gospel of John, that were not written down and included in the gospels. The editorial decision to include one like this shows us the importance of the Gentile question still 30-50 years after the crucifixion.
But is that a live issue for you? Do you think there’s a problem with Gentiles being approved by God, admitted to the people of God solely on faith in Jesus?
For most of us it’s not really a burning issue today, since we’re all Gentiles after all, as are 99% of Christians. That is to say, non-Jewish.
So what does Luke 7 mean? Well, that’s the wrong question. Asking what something “MEANS” is a common way to go astray when interpreting the scriptures.
Meaning can be a misleading category, especially when dealing with moral/ethical questions, though this episode is not that. The question to bring is how does this text speak to me today. God said, Let there be light, and there was light. God said that, and it was. What does this text do, or accomplish? Where and when and why is it relevant?
The truth is, asking about “meaning” is a very limiting question that is sometimes used to put Jesus in a box and nail the lid shut. Here’s what it means. NO here’s what it means. You figure it out and then, you forget about it. You solved the problem. You know what it means.
But when you reframe the question, you see with different eyes, and hear with different ears. I like to hear the Centurion’s vigorous honesty and self-examination. ““Lord, do not trouble yourself, for I am not worthy to have you come under my roof;” This is a man with clear sight and unclouded vision, an awareness of who he is. This is what leads to salvation. Do you see that? Do you hear that?
Health/wholeness is provided to the sick slave. Jesus is asked at one remove to heal the slave of a man he doesn’t meet, and he never even needs to speak the words, or command the healing. Jesus doesn’t even say anything. “I’m not worthy,” are the words of power in this story. These are the performative words. The house is swept and clean and made ready for the Spirit of God. “I’m not worthy.” What is the Centurion saying? I know who you are, I know who I am. I know our unequal relationship. “I’m a high-ranking representative of the most powerful empire in history with hundreds of soldiers at my command, and you’re an unshaven, fanatical wandering preacher with no job, no home, no income.”
But I’M not worthy to have YOU come under MY roof. Do you hear what’s happening there? Jesus heard it and he immediately knows with whom and what he’s dealing: “For thus says the One who is high and lifted up, who inhabits eternity, whose name is Holy: “I dwell in the high and holy place, and also with him who is of a contrite and lowly spirit, to revive the spirit of the lowly, and to revive the heart of the contrite.”
It’s the truly lowly who is exalted. IT’s the sick who are healed. I have come for the lost, and yet he has found me. Now, Jesus says, have this taste of heaven, for the true home of life and health is the New Creation.
When the Son of Man comes, again, will he find faith on earth? Will he find you watching, with your lamps trimmed and filled with oil?
Sunday, March 7th Titus 2:1-15
I’ve always gotten along better with people older than myself than with those younger. Is that unusual? I don’t know. No offense to you young whippersnappers. But even more than those older than me I get along well with the dead. I know that sounds a little weird, but I’ve always been a little weird. In 3rd grade my parents gave me an Archaeology set; essentially just a box divided into 12 little sections with different examples of what can be found in Archaeology digs. There were ancient coins, pottery, metal objects, stuff like that. All replicas, of course.
This kept me busy, mainly in my imagination. I told a class a couple of weeks ago about a little toy cannon, a replica souvenir my parents bought me probably 60 years ago at the Fort San Marcos in St. Augustine, Florida. It’s small, about 4 inches long, and the brass cannon sits on an iron carriage. I asked my mother where it was several years ago, and she went into her room, dug around in a drawer and produced the cannon. I don’t know how she did it, over 50 years later.
Staring at that thing as a child would fire my imagination, to wonder at those times long ago. I wanted to load it with a firecracker, but even I knew that might not turn out so well. Imagination can sometimes be limited by knowledge, but I think it’s more likely to be limited by absence of knowledge, for I knew so little about Spanish history in the New World my imagination was small and confined.
One of the things we can learn about our text for today from the letter to Titus is what life as a slave was like in the first century Mediterranean world. You can see what the issues were just by reading vss. 9-10 and extrapolating from Paul’s words: “Tell slaves to be submissive to their masters and to give satisfaction in every respect; they are not to talk back, 10 not to pilfer, but to show complete and perfect fidelity.”
Astonishing enough on the surface, these words increase our amazement, the deeper we look. It’s unlikely that Paul would admonish them to be submissive and completely faithful if the opposite were not already a problem. The disrespect of second-guessing and talking back as well as theft of property were also apparently serious issues at the time. And of course, why wouldn’t they be? How would you and I do in a similar situation?
Of course, our historical imagination is constrained here by our knowledge, first of all, because Americans see slavery as one thing, we see it through the lens of our country’s disastrous history with chattel slavery, as it’s called. In 19th century America the distinction was obvious between the master and the slave, the owner and the “property.” In that world the clearest distinction was skin color, in the vast majority of circumstances. And this has carried over into modern day attitudes about skin color, even going so far as to swap like a magnetic pole reversal, so that now the great and the good, in a political power move, tell us that focusing on the content of character rather than the color of skin is a type of insidious racism that can never be erased, never escaped.
In the Roman world there was no distinction between master and slave based on skin color, and it was often the reverse, for slavery in the Roman world was a product of war, with Rome having a long history of winning. And the common enemies of Rome after the second century BC were to the north of them, Gauls, Franks, Germans, Britons, Goths, and Lombards, all of them typically paler in skin color than the typical Roman.
Any defeated soldier and his family were typically captured and sold by Rome into slavery. It was an empire built on slavery, more than any other in Western history, except perhaps for Sparta in the 5th century BC.
A slave suffered under the same conditions as everyone else in those days—an inadequate predominantly grain-based diet, the ravages of the climate, whether hot or cold, and its effects on the food supply, and the periodic march of infectious diseases throughout the population.
But the slave suffered other, nearly irreparable losses. The loss of dignity, agency, freedom, hope, rights, courtesy, often the consolation of marriage and family, certainly the acknowledgment of one’s own humanness by others, by those who owned you as a thing, a tool.
You would not expect common decency from your master, though such was not entirely unknown. In many ways the life of your dog or cat was better than a slave, certainly an agricultural or mining slave in this period, or a slave shackled to the decks of galley ships unable to defend themselves from enemy attack.
The woke progressives of our time who find it quite literally impossible to tolerate the well-known progressive Democrat Dr. Seuss, would be triggered into drooling fits by Paul’s words to Titus on slavery.
And it’s fair to say that from 20 centuries later Paul’s words do seem shocking. “Slaves be submissive to your masters.” There were many reasons for Paul’s instructions in Titus to the old and young, men and women, slave and free, and we’ll start with small and move to large.
Paul, and virtually every teacher of any kind in those days would have known and understood the importance of family stability. Many things drove this: the dangers of unshackled male sexuality were obvious to all, and it’s a common reason for traditional mores and morals in all societies of the past. In these scenarios, the young men have to be intentionally civilized by their elders, tamed, if you will, by threat and reward. Better to marry than to burn with passion, Paul says in I Corinthians.
Family stability and its requirements drives all the things we were implicitly and explicitly told to rebel against beginning, really, in the Roaring Twenties, and reaching critical mass with the advent of television, the birth control pill, modern adolescent music culture and rapidly growing wealth.
In the ancient world, female sexuality was also carefully controlled because the bargain as most men understood it was monogamy in exchange for certainty with regard to the paternity of one’s offspring, absent any DNA tests.
Societal stability as understood, was a value that is only possible with intact families to develop and inculcate virtues and behaviors in children that can be handed on to future generations, that is, virtues that then contribute to ongoing family stability, for the unquestioned good of the continuation of human flourishing.
You can see throughout our chapter that the predominant emphasis is on the growth and development of virtue and virtuous behavior all through the church. Be temperate, serious, sober, reverent, self-controlled, chaste, kind, and faithful. Plus, avoid slander, drunkenness, theft, impiety and worldly passions, and aim to be godly and upright, showing integrity, gravity and perfect fidelity. This is a tall order, is it not?
The simple fact that this catalog of ideas was decipherable by Titus tells us what kind of environment he operated in. The virtues described here are those that enabled people of all ages to flourish. Virtues that we find in shorter and shorter supply in today’s world.
Another reason for instructions such as these was Paul’s and his audience’s awareness of what’s called sub specie aeternitas, living “under the eye of eternity.” A consciousness of God, a belief and a hope in a life that is beyond the life we currently experience is in some sense a requirement for a settled and just civilization.
Too much goes wrong at the best of times to the evil and the good. How can it all be justified? Because it is all too obvious that life is not fair. I recall my astonishment long ago at hearing President Carter respond to a reporter complaining about the unfairness of some legislation; “Life is not fair.” And I thought to myself, That sounds like a Sunday School teacher.
The plainness of speech and obvious truth coming out of the mouth of a politician was startling and certainly memorable. But this is a driving reason why eternity is a promise that is clutched tightly by the believer. For how do you want to live your life? Always angry, always discontented? Why can’t I look like Cary Grant? It’s not fair. Why can’t I be as rich as Bill Gates? It’s not fair? I wanna get a fair shake. They always hire the other guy. They always promote the other guy.
Usually this kind of anger and self-disgust becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, and many eventually learn this too late. But judgment is the good news here. Is God not judge of all the earth? Is he not righteous and holy? Of course there will be a reckoning. If evil is rewarded on the last day, then there is no such thing as justice. Without a reckoning, an accounting, goodness falls to the ground. Blessed are the poor, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. And woe to you rich, for you have had your reward.
The critique that Christianity is just pie in the sky by and by forgets that the inevitable and inescapable inequities of natural, societal and economic life are the permanent drivers of violence, and those inequities must be addressed, even when not able to be ameliorated.
Which are more destructive, envy, hatred, and violence, or patience hope and love of one’s enemy? Trick question, obviously. A belief in eternity does indeed reduce violence in a society, which is part of what Karl Marx was referring to when he said religion is the opiate of the masses. Which may be why opioids became so easily available the past 30 years.
But the point of building social order with faith and hope and patience is to protect the poorest and most vulnerable. Murder last year was up 27% compared to 2019 in New York City, and gang violence was up by 52%. In 57 cities across the country, including Chicago, Minneapolis, Milwaukee, Los Angeles and Seattle, murder was up by an average of 38%.
Experts announced that virtually all of the victims were in the top 1% of the upper class. Do you believe that? Of course not.
Paul places all his admonishments to Titus in the context of verse 11. “For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all.” Live lives that are self-controlled and godly while we wait for the blessed hope and manifestation of the glory of the great God and our Savior, Jesus Christ.
The final and most important thing to note about this text is the way that Paul calls slaves, and everyone, to exercise their freedom. It’s an insight born of the words of Jesus in Matthew 26, when he was arrested: “Do you think that I cannot appeal to my Father, and he will at once send me more than twelve legions of angels? But how then would the scriptures be fulfilled, which say it must happen in this way?”
Jesus chose death freely, that we might have life. Jesus died a free man, not a slave to the Romans or the Sanhedrin. They had no power over him. “Pilate therefore said to him, “Do you refuse to speak to me? Do you not know that I have power to release you, and power to crucify you?” 11 Jesus answered him, “You would have no power over me unless it had been given you from above.”
That kind of life cannot be finally destroyed. That’s what it means that the grace of God has appeared, even to the slave. In voluntary submission to conditions they cannot change by their own power, the slave transcends and conquers all that keeps him enslaved.
“Tell slaves to be submissive to their masters and to give satisfaction in every respect. to show complete and perfect fidelity, so that in everything they may be an ornament to the doctrine of God our Savior.”
An ornament to the doctrine of God our savior. That changes things. An ornament sets off the inner significance of something else. An earring or necklace is intended to highlight the beauty of the wearer. How does submission ornament the doctrine of God our savior? That’s what a slave has the power to do, and it seems Paul only mentions this in the context of the slave. The younger women are instructed, “so that the word of God may not be discredited.” The young men are instructed so that “nothing evil can be said of us.”
But only the slaves’ submission to a master in the face of suffering is somehow an ornament. Not necessarily to God, but to the doctrine of God our savior. A life like that which is encouraged by Paul sets off and highlights the beauty of the doctrine of God our savior. Because the grace of God has appeared.
To serve an unfeeling harsh master with honesty and complete and perfect fidelity is a living proclamation of the gospel, for it is a miracle, a sign that points elsewhere, an ornament.
This is what the power of resurrection means and does. Is any believer bound, chained, controlled by his or her circumstances? Only if we choose to be. When you’re already a slave to God, you’re already free, and with a freedom that no one else can take away, because you’ve already been bought with a price, purchased with the blood of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ. “He it is who gave himself for us that he might redeem us from all iniquity and purify for himself a people of his own who are zealous for good deeds.”
Sunday, February 28th John 3:22-36
I knew we were really in what we used to call the “Space Age” when the first Apple Watch was released. Never mind all the other things it would do with all the various Apps that come with it. The vision of millions of Dick Tracy’s talking into the telephone on their wristwatch was something I don’t imagine Chester Gould ever thought would come to pass when the “two-way Wrist Radio” was introduced to the comic strip in 1946.
It’s difficult to see into the future, as JP Morgan acknowledged, when he answered the question “What will the stock market do this year, Mr. Morgan?” with the ironclad answer, “It will fluctuate.” That’s hard to argue with.
Like the climate, of course. It will fluctuate. And sunspots. And the Balance of Trade. As poet Ellen Hutchinson famously remarked, “So wags the world away, forever and a day.”
Some people see things coming. Elijah could prophetically see the end of drought when no one else could. He sent his servant seven times to look out from the top of Mr. Carmel toward the Mediterranean who each time returned to report that he saw no change. Until that last time, when he said, “I see a cloud the size of a man’s hand.” A raincloud was approaching.
This time last year I was watching the news at my daughter’s house in Dallas. I had no idea that yet another virus out of China would have the effect it has had in the last year. There had been so many in the last 20 years, they all seemed to pass over like a summer storm. The West Nile Virus, the SARS virus of 2003, the Swine Flu, the Bird Flu, the MERS virus, the Ebola Virus, the Zika Virus.
At that time last year, the president had already banned incoming flights from China, for which he was called a racist, but it slowed things down, for even Dr. Fauci to be able to tell us in March that we didn’t need to wear face masks.
Twenty years ago, there were those who wanted to tax the internet in a variety of ways, especially online sellers like Amazon, etc., and others who argued against that. It was the standard partisan split for or against increased taxes.
Few of us thought at the time that Internet based companies could one day be as all powerful as they are today, when we have Republican Senators calling for government to break up these massive tech companies using the Anti-Trust laws. Didn’t see that coming. Everything’s upside down it seems. Like the song, The World Turned Upside Down, as was first sung back in the 1640s to protest the ban on Christmas in England, under parliamentary rule, and later played by Cornwallis’ army after they surrendered at the siege of Yorktown in 1781.
Listen to me and you shall hear, news hath not been this thousand year:
Since Herod, Caesar, and many more, you never heard the like before.
Holy-dayes are despis'd, new fashions are devis'd.
Old Christmas is kickt out of Town.
Yet let's be content, and the times lament, you see the world turn'd upside down.
The point is it’s difficult to see into the future. But in our text today we’re presented with an example that reminds us it’s difficult to see into the past as well. If you’re the parent of more than one child you’ll remember how hard it was to determine who hit who first, or who ate the last cookie. Who spilled the milk, who broke the lamp? Like that Family Circus comics character, it was usually Not Me, who did it, who did everything.
What is hard to see in our text is John the Baptist. Of course his presence there is obvious, but we don’t puzzle about this, and we don’t ask why he’s still with us in chapter 3 because our familiarity with the gospels smooths over the oddity.
We first read about John in ch 1 of this gospel, when the writer tells us that John the Baptist was not the light referred to in vs. 5, “the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” “He himself,” vs. 8 says,
“was not the light, but he came to bear witness to the light.” The writer interrupts the prologue, which is about the incarnation of the Word of God, to clarify who John is and who he is not.
When you think about it, the interruption to the flow of the prologue in ch. 1 is a little startling. Must be something important to say, to interrupt in that way. President Biden was leaving the stage at a recent press conference and somebody stepped in front of him and interrupted his exit. Must be some kind of emergency, I thought. Turns out it was a doctor in a white coat reminding him he had forgotten to wear his mask as he left the podium.
The interruption in the prologue of John is a clue. The last half of ch. 1 when it returns to John the Baptist begins this way, “This is the testimony given by John.” He’s the witness, not the light.
We return to John in ch. 3, in our text for today. Someone came to John and said, everybody’s going off to follow that other guy! Any comment, Mr. Baptist?
“You heard me say, “I’m not the Messiah.” I’m just the advance man. He’s the bridegroom, I’m just the best man. “He must increase, I must decrease.”
The gospel of John is very intent on making that point more than once, which could be because 50-100 years later John is still remembered, honored, perhaps misunderstood. Acts 19 is a bit of an anomaly, until we understand the issue of John the Baptist, for John is not a fly by night tent revivalist. Long after his execution by Herod he’s remembered, revered, he’s the central figure in the faith of some Jews as we see in Acts 19.
Paul came to Ephesus, Acts tells us, and “found some disciples,” it says. It pointedly doesn’t say disciples of whom, though, for we learn these are disciples of John the Baptist. But perhaps two decades or more after John’s death, he has disciples over 1100 miles away in Western Turkey.
“And Paul said to them, “Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?” And they said, “No, we have never even heard that there is a Holy Spirit.” 3 And he said, “Into what then were you baptized?” They said, “Into John’s baptism.” 4 And Paul said, “John baptized with the baptism of repentance, telling the people to believe in the one who was to come after him, that is, Jesus.” 5 On hearing this, they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus.”
On hearing this. The detail to note is not that this world figure, John the Baptist, is likely known wherever there were Jews in the Roman Society, but that Luke gives us one example of a community of John’s disciples and that it is in Ephesus, the city that was associated with the Virgin Mary after the crucifixion, and with John the Apostle, who stayed with her and was a son to her.
What is likely is that this is still an issue in John’s world, in Ephesus, and so the gospel writer is reminding us through this prominent though secondary role that John plays in the gospel that the Baptist is a witness, he is not the light, he is a witness to the light. He’s the best man, not the bridegroom.
The mantle of Elijah, the Spirit of the Lord, had fallen so heavily on John the Baptist that it reverberated, and resonated with his hearers and followers for years. Makes you wonder what those disciples in Acts 19 had been doing all that time. It’s quite a picture of devotion and discipleship. What else had John told them? Wait for the one whose sandals I’m not worthy to untie. The axe is laid at the root of the tree, his winnowing fan is in his hand.
He must increase, I must decrease. Let’s think about that for a minute. I have a print of a painting in my office; it’s a crucifixion painted by Mathias Grunewald that, anachronistically, has John the Baptist standing off to the side, holding a book in his left hand and pointing with his big bony right finger towards Jesus on the cross.
Latin words in the background say “He must increase, I must decrease.” There’s a sense in which this is not germane to us. Not applicable to the Christian believer. For you think about why Jesus came to earth. Why born of the Virgin Mary? Why healing and preaching teaching all over Judea and Galilee? Why die on a cross and rise from the dead?
Was it so you could decrease? He must increase and I must decrease? Whatever we take decrease to mean, it’s clearly the opposite of increase. I understand the gospel message and atonement of Christ as the word to make the believer flourish, and grow more into the image of God, to receive eternal life, and to receive life more abundant.
He who believes in the Son has eternal life. He who hears my word and believes him who sent me, has eternal life; he does not come into judgment, but has passed from death to life. My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me; and I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish, and no one shall snatch them out of my hand. Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life; he who believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and whoever lives and believes in me shall never die. These quotes are all from Jesus in the Fourth Gospel. They emphasize the present nature of salvation. They focus the goal of Christ’s incarnation, to elevate the human, to raise us from darkness and slavery to sin and death’s dark domain, to live by the light, in the light.
In a very real sense you could reverse John’s saying, put it in Jesus’ mouth and have “I must decrease, that they may increase.” That’s an expression of mission. The word mission means the program for which one is sent somewhere, and Jesus, he tells us repeatedly, was sent to the cross. The cross is the nadir of human existence in that time. It is where the lowest of the low wind up. No good person would be thought to be the kind of person to be crucified. Common criminals, rebels, terrorists.
Jesus, (the Word was with God, and the Word was God,) Jesus comes from the highest place and goes to the lowest, that we might leave the lowest, the depths of slavery to sin, and be lifted up to the highest, the living, created image of God. God is not stingy, he promises, as we learn in I John, that we shall be like him. We shall live with him, in the throne room of God, which shall be here on earth, in his new creation.
On the way to our exaltation, our apotheosis, we learn that the road is through a different wood than we might have imagined. For here is where John the Baptist is a good guide. Remember what John spent much of his time doing. He buried people. He took them down, down, to the watery depths in the river, first; that they might then be raised up into a new life. Cleansed, forgiven, restored.
This is the way to the heights of the mountaintop. This is the only path. To get to where we’re going, we must take the low road. TS Eliot spoke of his own rebirth into the faith of his fathers, and the faith that many in England had found, in his poem, The Four Quartets, the last of which ends this way.
“We die with the dying:
See, they depart, and we go with them.
We are born with the dead:
See, they return, and bring us with them.
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
Through the unknown, remembered gate
When the last of earth left to discover
Is that which was the beginning;
At the source of the longest river
The voice of the hidden waterfall
And the children in the apple-tree
Not known, because not looked for
But heard, half-heard, in the stillness
Between two waves of the sea.
The incarnation of Jesus Christ is the least understood of many Christian doctrines because we have not yet understood how it should color every thing about the way we see ourselves and others, about the way we treat ourselves and others.
I learned last week in our Sermon discussion class on I Peter a valuable insight that Hunter McFarlin noticed in ch. 2, where we read “But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession.” I can think of many special possessions of my own, but none like my family. Have you ever thought of yourself as God’s special possession? Of course, if everyone is a special possession, we tend to think that lessens the specialness, like every third grader gets a first-place trophy at the track meet.
But that doesn’t take into account whose possession we are. If everyone I know is my special friend, what’s special about that? But with God, his nature, his essence, changes everything, for he made you, for a purpose, and to delight in. And even though you are flawed through your own poor choices, he won’t give you up.
You’re his. You belong to him. The low road leads to the high road.
And this is love: that we walk in obedience to his commands. As you have heard from the beginning, his command is that you walk in love.
Sunday, February 21st I Peter 3:1-12
I would like to have been in the room when the committee of translators worked on verse 1 of your lesson today. “Wives, in the same way, accept the authority of your husbands.” There were 30 on the committee, including four women, though the whole group wouldn’t have worked together on any one book.
Clearly, “wives accept the authority of your husbands,” is quite different in tone from, “wives, be submissive to your husbands,” though I don’t know which would be more offensive to those who would be offended by this kind of language. The whole issue does highlight for us the inadequacy of what’s called “proof-texting.”
Be submissive. “The Bible says you have to submit to me!” How to win an argument and lose a marriage, and your house, and your truck and your bass-boat.
I suppose that kind of overbearing language may still work in some marriages, but I can’t imagine it does much for what we read in vs 8 of our lesson, “unity of spirit, sympathy, a tender heart, a humble mind.”
Of course, if you’ve been coerced, forced to submit by an adversarial husband, whether physically or otherwise, it becomes nearly impossible to hear and understand what the Spirit of God is saying through Peter. But let’s try.
We need to know three things, at least, to understand this text: 1. The state of the Roman family, particularly wives, 2. The peculiar language Peter uses to which we’re often deaf, and 3. The surprising context in which he gives these instructions.
The state of the Roman, or let’s say, Mediterranean family in that day, is a large and complex topic made more so by the vagaries of historical reconstructions, the passage of time, and the relative paucity of evidence.
But the state of married relationships in those days can be inferred from a few things we know. One, marriage involves men and women. Some things just don’t change. So there’s that. Plus, it must be an issue in the early church because Peter and Paul and Jesus see the need to address it.
We should also remind ourselves that there was no birth control pill back then, other contraceptive methods were dangerous or generally ineffective, abortion was difficult and highly dangerous to the mother, and female infant abandonment, literal abandonment, as in “leave by the side of the road” abandonment was one of the common methods of limiting family size. Rodney Stark theorizes this is one reason female membership in the church was lopsided compared to their numbers in society, and why the church grew while the population shrank. When you limit the number of women, you limit the number of children.
In the Roman world, one female child per family was generally the rule, along with four or five male children. Once this unofficial level was reached, husbands commonly avoided impregnating their wives, if they were still alive after numerous pregnancies, and found sexual outlets with young slaves, boys or girls, or courtesans, which was a prostitute that was still attractive. Plus, slaves were handier, and had already been paid for.
Upper class Roman women, likely in the top 5% economically, had certain marital rights, that were rarely used, except for inheritance rules that protected their family of origin’s assets. Rich people never play around when it comes to money.
My impressions, for that’s all they are, from what I’ve read, are that it was difficult to become an old woman in those days, and a married woman of 60, whose children were all alive and known to the mother, not abandoned, was a rarity. Motherhood killed more women than anything, other than infectious disease. Just like violence, in war or otherwise, killed more young men than anything other than infectious disease.
The notions of marital romance, love, companionship, were somewhat foreign concepts not directly tied to their understandings of marriage in those days, which was seen as simply the institution of successful reproduction.
The rise to prominence in later centuries of the Virgin Mary, mother of our Lord, drastically raised the status of women as a whole, but this mainly began in the churches of the Eastern Empire after the fifth century, and only later spread to Western Europe. It was the idea of a woman bearing the divine savior of the world in her body which was revolutionary.
When Romans learned that the Christians did not mean this in a mythological sense, but in actuality, it was disgusting to most. Childbirth and its processes were considered degrading by men. Too much blood and suffering and “passion” for any God to have come into the world by that route. They considered that to connect the world of transcendent deity to the physical sufferings of women was somehow repulsive and contradictory by its very nature. But it was not a myth, not just a story, not just some retread of the birth Hercules.
God sent his son, born of a woman, Paul says in Galatians. And in Romans 1, “concerning his Son, who was descended from David according to the flesh.” That bothered Gentiles.
The controversies as to how exactly to describe theologically the relationship between divinity and humanity in the person of Jesus Christ led to the use of the term “theotokos” as an honorific title for Mary, literally God-bearer,” or more commonly, the Mother of God.
The issue was, If you will not say she is the Mother of God, you’re saying Jesus somehow became the incarnation of God AFTER he was born. This would be really difficult to reconcile with John 1, “The Word was God” and “The Word became flesh,” not, significantly, Flesh became the Word.
The order of events was important because God is eternal. The Word was begotten, not made, always and only begotten. God, if God is also the Word, and the Spirit, must always have been thus, for he is being, and not becoming. Always God. Always unchangeable.
So “Theotokos” elevated not just one woman, but all women, and in the rites and practices of the early medieval church, women in general began to be seen differently than in the past. The large percentage of women in convents in that period also changed the way women were perceived, for even though this was not the intent of those who founded convents, nuns in general lived longer, safer, more comfortable lives. They, though theoretically removed from the system of social stratification, and outside of the sexual economy, were in actuality closer to the top than women in general.
And even when in cloistered convents, their role in medieval society was prominent in economic and sometimes even in political affairs.
Enough about that. Let’s look at Peter’s language, long before all that subsequent history. Just to emphasize this way of thinking that’s entirely foreign to the modern mind, notice in the first verse, Peter says, “Likewise.” Likewise, you wives. Or, in the NRSV, “Wives, in the same way.”
This should sound fairly outrageous, for “in the same way” refers back to ch. 2, with its two main instructions. Generally, be subject to every human institution, “whether to the Emperor or governors.” Ironically, in seemingly contradictory fashion, his other instruction says, “live as free men, but live as slaves of God.”
But Peter goes further, for he also says, “Slaves, accept the authority of your masters with all deference.” This is what 3:1 refers to, “likewise, you wives, accept the authority of your husbands.” Are wives considered to be slaves in the Bible? Is that the message here?
In God’s providence, there’s a key for us to unlock this puzzle, in verse 7. “Likewise, you husbands.” This likewise links back to the slaves as well. And right after this, in verse 8, we hear, “And finally, all of you.” “Finally, all of you, have unity of spirit, sympathy, love for one another, a tender heart, and a humble mind. 9 Do not repay evil for evil or abuse for abuse; but, on the contrary, repay with a blessing.”
Ch. 2 is not a separate topic. It all works together. Submit to every human institution. Honor the Emperor. Live as free men, but as slaves to God. Slaves submit to your masters. Likewise, wives, submit to your husbands. Likewise, you husbands, live considerately with your wives.
Peter is not suggesting Christians should simply and uncomplainingly adopt and adapt to the ways of the world, however ugly and evil. He is telling them and us that the ways of the world are no match for the ways of Jesus. After he tells slaves to submit to masters, in effect calling them to suffering, he says, “For to this you have been called, because Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example.”
Wives be submissive to your husbands that your inner beauty may convert even unbelieving husbands. And you will be the daughters of Sarah, the mother of God’s people, if you do right. And notice his last instruction to wives in particular: let nothing terrify you. Peter seems to understand somewhat the life of a wife and mother in those days.
Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil. The Lord is my light, and my salvation. Whom shall I fear?
The husband, “likewise live considerately with your wives.” What does that mean? Well, Think about the word considerately: Consider who she is. Consider who made her. Consider. Consider you agreed to marry her. Consider: jointly you are an heir with your wife of the grace of life. The grace of life could be many things. The blessings of children. Jointly heirs of that grace. An heir is just someone who receives something because of a relationship.
Or it could be the gift of your own life. That’s a grace. Consider: in general, women are physically weaker than men. The debate about transgender sports shows this. High school girls in some schools around the country aren’t even placing in certain track and field events. Of course, a lot of 10-year-old girls could probably beat up 10-year-old boys. But 5 years later not so much.
Husbands, consider. Consider your prayer. Apparently, there is a disqualifier for a man’s prayers to God depending on how he treats his wife. This should be no surprise. Paul teaches in Ephesians 5, which still bothers a lot of women, that wives should obey their husbands as they obey Christ. But you have to read the whole passage to understand the radical nature of what Paul proposed. Paul’s more absolute in a way than Peter, for he says Husbands must also be Christ to their wives, and treat their wives like Christ treats the church, for whom he died. This elevates the relationship outside and above issues like who’s happy and who’s not happy and all the things married couples might fight about.
The issue is how are we doing with the cross of Christ? All relationships are put under the aegis of the cross. The aegis of Athena is referred to in several places in Homer’s Iliad. It was considered to be some sort of shield that she carried, with the face of a Gorgon. "It produced a sound as from a myriad of roaring dragons and was borne by Athena in battle.” Also, ... “and among them went bright-eyed Athena, holding the precious aegis which is ageless and immortal: a hundred tassels of pure gold hang fluttering from it, tight-woven each of them, and each the worth of a hundred oxen.”
The aegis of the cross. This is of course what we would expect, once we understand that the old world cracked, at 3 o’clock that Friday afternoon, when the King of the Jews (what I have written, I have written) expelled his last shuddering breath nailed up on that torture machine, that Roman cross.
Of course it changes everything. And we can’t always perceive that. We’re the beneficiaries of so many changes we sometimes just can’t see them. If you’ve never gone without food for a few days do you really know what money is? If you’ve never slept in an alleyway on a cold night because you had to, do you know what a home is?
The habit of gratitude changes us within and without, and the within must always move to the without, must always be expressed to take form in the world with others. This is the genesis of how we treat others. Forgive for you have been forgiven. Love because you are loved. Be patient, as God is patient with you. Blessed are the merciful for they shall receive mercy.
Peter is not forging a new set of rules. He’s reminding us that we’ve been called to bless others, that we may also obtain a blessing. “He that would love life and see good days, let him keep his tongue from evil and his lips from speaking guile; let him turn away from evil and do right; let him seek peace and pursue it.”
Sunday February 14th, Psalm 28
I would hope that it’s impossible to be unmoved by the opening words of the Psalmist’s prayer. Let’s hear it again: “To you, O Lord, I cry; my rock, do not refuse to hear me, for if you are silent to me, I shall be like those who go down to the Pit.”
The Psalms do many things. They help us to be human. They exhibit for us so much of the human experience and help us to connect with another human soul. They enable us to hear the Word of God filtered through and generated by the events, thoughts and feelings of Bronze Age and early Iron Age people speaking an alien language and living on the other side of the world. Distant in time and place. This writer, whether David or some other, is your brother. His anguish is yours; his fear is yours.
Any believer in God has been in the Psalmist’s shoes and certainly understands the writer’s predicament. “If you don’t hear me, O Lord, I am finished, hopeless and helpless.” The forces of the world, the inexorable events, the heartache and thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to. When Shakespeare gave those words to his character Hamlet, “the whips and scorns of time, Th' oppressor's wrong, the proud man's contumely, The pangs of despised love, the law's delay, The insolence of office, and the spurns
That patient merit of the unworthy takes,” he was a man who knew the Psalms, the scriptures. By conservative count Shakespeare quoted the Bible 1200 times. He himself was the heir to 3,000 years of tradition, a tradition that said God hears our cry. In Genesis 4 God said to Cain: “Listen, your brother’s blood is crying out to me from the ground.” God heard the cry of the slaves in Egypt and he heard the cry of our Psalmist.
Why does Hamlet die at the end of the play? Because he seeks revenge, rather than hearing the Word of God, “Vengeance is mine, saith the Lord.” Hamlet will not forgive his uncle, and thus falls in the same pit that he dug for his enemy, as the Psalmist would put it.
Simply the presence in the scriptures of this kind of language found in Psalm 28, replicated for us in so many of the Psalms, in Job, in Ecclesiastes, conveys a theological insight to the reader who will listen and hear. The fact that the Holy Scriptures convey examples of this human anxiety, examples of these emotional extremes is telling and redemptive. God is not deaf. God does not forget.
“If you are silent to me, I shall be like those who go down to the pit.” The Psalmist is under pressure of anxiety and fear, though not yet hopeless. “If you are silent to me.” He has not yet given up hope. “I SHALL be like those who go down to the Pit.” I “shall” is not a prediction, but the second half of an If/Then statement. The fact that he has not given up hope is seen in the existence of the Psalm itself. Why pray if there is no hope?
Hope may be small. Hope may be difficult to find or to feel. The signal hope sends out may seem weak, but hope is a power that can transform everything around it, beginning with the human soul in which it dwells.
Emily Dickinson seems to have understood something like this:
“Hope is the thing with feathers
That perches in the soul,
And sings the tune without the words,
And never stops at all,
And sweetest in the gale is heard;
And sore must be the storm
That could abash the little bird
That kept so many warm.
I've heard it in the chillest land,
And on the strangest sea;
Yet, never, in extremity,
It asked a crumb of me.”
This is at the very least an indicator of what I call the Socrates effect. By that I mean that examples of good lives resonate and echo through history. People like Socrates cause others to think, even those with no faith or religion, “if there can be such a man, in such a time, perhaps all is not lost. Perhaps I can be somewhat similar, perhaps I can resist the weight of power, perhaps I can tell the truth when lies are all around me, when all the world feasts on lies as at a rich banquet.” Socrates is a simple parable of hope, seen in being willing to lay down one’s life, as he did, rather than compromise with falsehood.
Tom Wolfe is definitely an acquired taste as a novelist, and his A Man in Full novel describes an example of the Socrates effect in the way a prison inmate, Conrad Hensley, who is mistakenly given a copy of the writings of the Stoic Epictetus, having nothing else to read in prison, devours the thoughts and teachings of Epictetus and soon becomes a Stoic himself.
Wolfe says Conrad was raised by his hippie parents, who ‘openly disdained such bourgeois values as “order, moral rectitude, courtesy, cooperation, education, financial success, comfort, respectability, pride in one’s offspring, and, above all, domestic tranquility.”’
Conrad wanted those things, especially because he was in prison unjustly, refusing to plead guilty to a crime he did not commit. Tom Wolfe, in describing Conrad’s experience with Epictetus says, “Conrad finds passages that seem addressed directly to him. He is intrigued by Epictetus’ idea of a divinity who gives mankind “a spark of his own fire.” He tries to open himself up to this divine energy. “Having never believed in a god, and having never prayed before, he didn’t even know that this was prayer.”
Conrad eventually gets out of prison and works as a nurses’ aid to a millionaire recovering from knee surgery and shares with the depressed millionaire, Charlie Croker, what he’s learned from old Epictetus, who was a slave, but nonetheless knew and possessed his own soul.
Wolfe is manifestly slipping into his putatively non-religious novel a simulacrum of evangelism and how it works, and how the past and its characters can speak to us, directly.
Of course, Emily Dickinson lived in an overtly Christian society, and even participated in the Revival that took place in 1845 in Amherst, and wrote to a friend, "I never enjoyed such perfect peace and happiness as the short time in which I felt I had found my Savior." She went on to say it was her "greatest pleasure to commune alone with the great God & to feel that he would listen to my prayers.”
Her poem can be justly said to have more akin to Psalm 28 than Socrates or Epictetus, for it is certainly no accident that this maiden lady from New England could talk about the “hope” within the soul that has feathers and sings a song with no words and never stops.
The Holy Spirit is famously seen as the Dove that alights upon Jesus at his baptism, as the figure of life and hope that comes to back to Noah in the ark with an Olive branch in its beak, the Holy Spirit is the person that Paul describes in Romans 5:5: “character produces hope, 5 and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.”
Even more to the point, Paul reminds us, which I would hazard a guess is at least “a” source of Dickinson’s imagery in the poem, in Romans 8:26, “Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words.”
“And sings the tune without the words, and never stops at all.” It’s not mentioned by the poet WHY the tune has no words. But surely, she knows why.
And sweetest in the gale is heard;
And sore must be the storm
That could abash the little bird
That kept so many warm.
She understood what the tune without words meant. She experienced the sighs and groanings too deep for words. An unmarried lady of a certain age considered an eccentric by her Massachusetts neighbors, she gradually became a recluse, not leaving her family’s house, and eventually confining herself to her bedroom.
“Hear the voice of my supplication as I cry to you for help,” says the Psalmist. The poet as well as the Psalmist, had her cry heard by the Lord: “And sweetest in the gale is heard;” During the time of the storm, the challenge, the crisis, the Spirit sings his tune.
What does the Psalmist say? “Blessed be the Lord, for he has heard the sound of my pleadings. The Lord is my strength and my shield; in him my heart trusts; so I am helped, and my heart exults, and with my song I give thanks to him.”
The Psalmist has been heard. The power of all the Psalms is expanded when we remember the faith of the Psalmist in the face of the Silence of God, for that sometimes happens. The best thing that Mother Teresa of the Missionaries of Charity ever said was something she never intended to be public. In a private letter, she wrote: “Where is my faith? Even deep down ... there is nothing but emptiness and darkness. ... If there be God – please forgive me. When I try to raise my thoughts to Heaven, there is such convicting emptiness that those very thoughts return like sharp knives and hurt my very soul.” This happens.
“O my rock, do not refuse to hear me, for if you are silent to me, I shall be like those who go down to the Pit.” Other Psalms are similar to these first verses of 28: Psalm 77: ““Will the Lord spurn forever, and never again be favorable? 8 Has his steadfast love ceased forever? Are his promises at an end for all time? Has God forgotten to be gracious? Has he in anger shut up his compassion?”
Psalm 88 ends on this note: “But I, O Lord, cry out to you; in the morning my prayer comes before you. 14 O Lord, why do you cast me off? Why do you hide your face from me? 15 Wretched and close to death from my youth up, I suffer your terrors; I am desperate. 16 Your wrath has swept over me; your dread assaults destroy me. 17 They surround me like a flood all day long; from all sides they close in on me. 18 You have caused friend and neighbor to shun me; my companions are in darkness.”
The Psalms are not some Pollyanna devotional book. We crash into reality when we read the Psalms and we see ourselves in the mirror. Wealthy middle-class Christians are prone to seeing their worldly success as strictly the favor of God upon their efforts. And it’s true, at the civilizational level, the precepts of the Lord are at the foundation of a society of freedom and justice.
But when family tragedy strikes, when the waters of a financial crisis close over us, when our home is foreclosed out from under us, while Billionaires build bigger and bigger yachts, the biggest banks get bailed out and we do not, when a marriage cannot survive the death of a child, what then? Where did faith go? Was it all a hoax? Does God not hear? That’s the position of the Psalmist’s enemies, as he says in vs. 5, “they do not regard the works of the Lord, or the work of his hands,” Like Psalm 42: “My tears have been my food day and night,
while people say to me continually, “Where is your God?” Or Psalm 79: “Help us, O God of our salvation, for the glory of your name; deliver us, and forgive our sins, for your name’s sake. 10 Why should the nations say, “Where is their God?”
The Word of God does not fear the reproaches of the ungodly. Our life, our experience, our sorrow, our grief, are all in his book. God does not forget. “O Most High, 3 when I am afraid, I put my trust in you. 4 In God, whose word I praise, in God I trust; I am not afraid; what can flesh do to me? 8 You have kept count of my tossings; you put my tears in your bottle. Are they not in your record?”
Like Paul, whose many scars surely would have ached in the cold winter, as he said in Colossians: “I am now rejoicing in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am completing what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church.” And in Galatians 6: “From now on, let no one make trouble for me; for I carry the marks of Jesus branded on my body.”
God hears. God knows. Ps 42: “By day the Lord commands his steadfast love, and at night his song is with me, a prayer to the God of my life.” And our Psalm, 28: “The Lord is my strength and my shield; my heart trusted in him, and I am helped: therefore, my heart greatly rejoices; and with my song will I praise him.”
The road to the morning lies through the darkness. The road to rejoicing comes with the sorrows of life. The water of life is sometimes given to us in the tears we shed for ourselves and for others.
And Jesus said, take up your cross and follow me. There is no other road.